It has been a record year so far in the number of Catholic visitors to Israel, a pay off to the 10-million shekel investment by the Ministry of Tourism in promoting tourism to the Holy Land from Catholic nations.
But one organization is looking to widen the scope of the Catholic tourism surge to include more about Israel and not just the Holy Land.
“What I’ve noticed from a lot of Catholic tour groups is a kind of ‘Great Disconnect’ between the Israel in the Bible and Israel today,” said Ariel Ben Ami, director of Catholics for Israel. “They don’t even use the word ‘Israel,’ but only ‘Holy Land.’
“Many come here to see an open air museum, to see where Jesus walked, to see the holy sites. But they have no experience whatsoever with Israelis or any appreciation for the modern miracle of the re-birth of Israel and return of the Jewish people home after two thousand years of exile to the land that God promised them in the Bible.”
By comparison, Evangelical tours include more of a focus on the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and what God is doing among the Jewish people today from the founding of the State of Israel to the current political situation, Ben Ami said.
Catholics for Israel is an internet-based organization with a threefold mandate: to love Israel, to love the Messiah and to love the Church. Ben Ami, a Catholic Canadian who has lived in Israel for 12 years now, said his mission is to be a bridge between Catholics, Evangelicals and Jews. One of his goals is to bring out the Jewish roots of the Catholic faith.
“Evangelicals are ahead of Catholics in understanding that God still has a plan today for Israel,” Ben Ami told Travelujah, the only Christian social networking site about travel to the Holy Land. “A moderate biblical Zionism is in agreement with the Catholic faith. The Catholic Church has laid some foundations, speaking against anti-Semitism, affirming that the covenant with the Jewish people has not been revoked. But often it has not trickled down to the masses.”
To incorporate more of a focus on modern Israel, Ben Ami recommends that Catholics make sure to visit Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial to better understand modern Jewish history and places like the Temple Institute to become more familiar with biblical Judaism, which was Jesus’ religion. He said Catholics should get to know modern Israelis by attending a synagogue or Messianic congregation and by incorporating a Shabbat meal with a Jewish family or organization.
“The Lord is forming a family and he wants to unite us,” Ben Ami said, which is why his mandate includes promoting respect and unity among Jews and Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical. “There has been a gap in the (Catholic) Church and its teaching on Israel. So many Catholics miss it on Israel. They tend to be swept away by spirit of the world and take news at face value which are often anti-Israel, forgetting that God has a special purpose for this people and land.”
The website, www.israelcatholic.com, is in five languages (English, French, German, Hebrew and Italian) and includes articles about the organization’s beliefs.
Ben Ami notes that most Catholics in Israel are Arabs, indigenous to the land. He said that while the organization wants to bless them as well, Catholic tour groups are usually led by Arab tour guides and are already privy to the Palestinian side. He wants to expose them to the Jewish-Israeli side as well.
“Our focus is mostly biblical and theological. We try not to get into political side unless we see a problem and then we say something,” he said. “With all the craziness going on here, the anti-Israel bias can be troubling and irrational, and sometimes we feel that we need to be a balancing voice. All Catholics should recognize that the root of their faith is Israel – and this includes the Israel of today just as much as the Israel of the Bible.”
Nicole Jansezian, Assist News Servica