By Elan Ezrachi
One of the most noticeable elements of the Covid-19 crisis is the nearly complete shutdown of international travel. The cessation of this basic tool of modernity is having huge economic ramifications and vast socio-cultural effects. People are locked in their countries; international borders serve as a mechanism for crisis management and the tourism industry around the globe is in a dire situation. All this affected basic Jewish activities: individual travel for family events and for business is impossible, educational travel programs to Israel and other Jewish sites were discontinued and all conferences, festivals and mass-gatherings were postposed or transferred to the internet. Jewish life has been dramatically disrupted and there is a threat that some forms of Jewish institutions will not be able to recover.
Still, the assumption is that the travel freeze will not last forever. Economic pressure, human need and possible treatment of the virus – will enable the travel industry to resume activities. At this point no one dares to predict when and how it will happen, but it is hard to imagine a world without an ability to travel across countries and oceans. However, everyone agrees that international travel in post-Corona times will be different.
When flights will be restored we might be faced with new standards and requirements that will make travel more complicated and less accessible. Among the possible new features it is logical assume the following: fewer flights, higher costs, harsher health-related measures, age-related restrictions, difficulties in planning and possible future disruptions. Sending and receiving countries will use their prerogatives to create and change policies. In this reality travel programs to Israel and other Jewish sites will need to function and re-position themselves.
Travel to Israel is known to be one of the most powerful tools for strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish belonging and attachment to Israel. The pre-Corona paradigm was “the more the more” – the more people travel to Israel for more times and in multiple programs – the better. Travel to Israel has been accessible (availability of multiple flights) and affordable (from the free trip of Taglit to other forms of subsidized travel). And once travelers came to Israel, a high quality infrastructure of guides and services were ready for them. In recent years we have also seen a new phenomenon of Israelis traveling to learn about Jewish life around the world. This also has been discontinued.
What if we cannot go back to ‘business as usual,’ at least not for the foreseeable future? New challenges will arise. Here are some points to think about: If fewer people will be able to travel, who should they be? If the costs will dramatically rise, what subsidies should be employed? If travel will be more complicated and risky, how should the programs adjust their operations? How do we maintain the quality of personnel and other related services? If certain age-groups and cohorts will be restricted from travel, how do we avoid exclusion and discrimination? If economic decline will dominate the world and prevent people from travel, how do we keep the connection between Israel and world-Jewry alive?
The travel domain cannot move to Zoom. There is no alternative to the experience that traveling was able to provide. As thinking out of the box is happening everywhere, it is time to start planning the exit strategy of Israel trips and other forms of Jewish travel.
Elan Ezrachi is a Jerusalem-based Jewish Peoplehood consultant and the academic head of the MA program in Jewish Peoplehood at the University of Haifa. He was the first CEO of Masa – Israel Journey.