Israel’s tourism triumph lies underneath it


When the BDS movement mounted a campaign against Israel, it targeted more than Israel’s economy, including tourism, which has nonetheless flourished beyond any expectation.

BDS not only attacked Israel’s tourism industry, but also the country’s single greatest and most meaningful attraction: its multi-faith religious roots. All three major Abrahamic religions are anchored in Israel.

Christians constitute the majority of tourists visiting Israel, many on religious quests. Generally speaking, Christian pilgrims are completely detached from Palestinian and Israeli political dynamics. They can be seen on any day. On April 27, Holy Saturday before Orthodox Easter Sunday, some 10,000 Christian pilgrims from across the world tried to squeeze into the hopelessly overcrowded Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City for the 1,200-year old “Holy Fire” rite.

During Ramadan, Muslims crowd into Jerusalem. In 2019, on the first Friday of Ramadan, 180,000 peacefully attended prayers — a 50 percent increase over 2018. In 2018, on the last day of Ramadan, 200,000 Muslims gathered at the Al Aqsa mosque for prayers. The faithful generally include hundreds from Arab and Islamic countries lacking diplomatic relations with Israel. For example, until a recent bilateral spat, Indonesians were regularly issued visas to tour Jerusalem.

During this year’s Pesach, 750,000 Jews visited the Kotel.

Despite the intense spiritual connections to Israel, BDS has tried to boycott the Dead Sea Scrolls; Ireland has tried to criminalize the purchase of relics and religious mementos from the Via Dolorosa; and there has even emerged an almost-comical but persistent misinformation campaign, corollary to BDS, that asserts the Second Temple never even existed as a Jewish edifice.

Amid the veneration of Israel as a Holy Land — and against this international BDS campaign — two Jerusalem tunnels have emerged among Israel’s greatest attractions, luring tourists from many countries. In the process, testifying from beneath the surface, these tunnels manifest Israel’s inhalable connection to the land and its history.

Most prominent are the Kotel tunnels. Only an approximately 200-foot section of the Kotel is above ground. The rest, nearly 1,600 feet, lies underground and can only be experienced via the tunnel complex. The monolithic testament to Judaism’s ancient connection to biblical Jerusalem is revealed in the enormity of the massive stones and their telltale chisel marks. One such stone weighs more than 500 tons, one of the heaviest ever handled.

So many tourists are visiting that the official tunnel website now posts in Chinese, English, Spanish, French, Russian and Portuguese, as well as Hebrew. The most popular foreign languages are Spanish, French and Russian. Approximately 400,000 toured the tunnels in 2018, up from about 320,000 in 2017, according to tunnel administration. The 2019 tally is expected to hit another record.

These visitors come against a backdrop of agitation against official or diplomatic visits to the wall, especially after the 2016 U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 that declared the Western Wall occupied territory. President Donald Trump’s administration broke that taboo.

The second major underground attraction is Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a belowground water conduit approximately 600 yards in length — that is, 1,200 cubits. This length corresponds to the tunnel’s stone inscription, discovered in 1880 and now residing in a Turkish museum. The amazing engineering feat was presumably the work of King Hezekiah ahead of a siege by Assyrian King Sennacherib at the end of the eighth century BCE, described and alluded to in several biblical passages.

Among those texts is 2 Chronicles 32:2-4, which states, “When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to wage war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him. They gathered a large group of people who blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land. ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?’ they said.”

Tunnel-diggers are said to have started at opposite ends, advanced towards each other and, astonishingly, met in the middle to form a perfect conduit and gradient.

For some years, biblical archaeologists have argued about the exact dating of the tunnel and whether it was accomplished under the reign of Hezekiah or another king. But for travelers, the main attraction is the ankle-deep wet walk through the tunnel — and its riveting nexus to ancient Israel.

Despite its dramatic connection to ancient Israel, a vigorous taboo has been promoted by international critics who claim the subterranean water conduit is located beneath the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh. Nonetheless, in 2018, more than 833,000 visited the City of David, many sloshing through the underground passage. That number is up from 557,100 in 2017, and the tally for 2019 may approach a million. City of David officials say most visitors are Americans, but that the number of Chinese tourists is rising dramatically.

It is the measure of Israel’s tourism turbulence that even the most dramatic archeological manifestation of the Jewish connection to its ancient homeland has become a contentious flashpoint. But as in all other aspects of its international travel appeal, Israel’s biblical tunnels are now permanently dug into the Jewish state’s tourism triumph.


Edwin Black is author of IBM and the Holocaust.