How do you answer a friend who wants your opinion about whether to come to Israel amid such unsettling news?

By Robert Sarner, Detroit Jewish News, Oct. 26, 2003

JERUSALEM - A few weeks ago, hours after the horrific terrorist attack on Café Hillel in Jerusalem, my wife and I received a phone call from Detroit from our friend Norma. It was close to one in the morning. She and her husband Michael and their four young children were set to leave the next day for a 10-day visit to Israel.

Norma was distraught. In addition to her sadness over this latest atrocity and her concern for our wellbeing, she and Michael were torn by what to do. After months of eagerly awaiting the trip, which was to include attending a friend's wedding in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv, they were now on the verge of canceling it.

Even before this latest suicide bombing in Jerusalem and another earlier in the day near Rishon Lezion, many people had discouraged them from coming to Israel. Some told them outright they were crazy, if not irresponsible, to subject their children to such a perilous situation.

Since the Palestinians launched their terrorist war three years ago, many countries issued travel advisories warning their citizens against visiting Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people have canceled trips to Israel, decimating its tourism industry.

"Robert, tell me honestly," Norma beseeched me. "You know how much we were looking forward to this trip. But with the situation seemingly getting even worse, do you think we should come?"

This was not the first time friends overseas have called or emailed me with such a question. In recent years, most Israelis with friends and relatives abroad have fielding similar queries.

"I can't really answer that," I told Norma. "If you want, we can talk statistics and I could tell you it's far more dangerous to drive on Israel's highways than to go to a local cafÇ or restaurant. I could say it's riskier going downtown in Detroit than walking around the center of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But the issue, of course, is not simply numbers."

This didn't really help Norma resolve her dilemma but I couldn't answer otherwise. "Of course, we would love to see you here," I told her. "But we will never tell you that you should come. It's a personal matter. The situation here obviously is not good and not everyone can deal with such tensions and risks, especially if they're traveling with children."

I explained to Norma why her question, though perfectly understandable, was impossible to answer. "Imagine I would convince you and your family to come and something terrible happens," I said. "I'd never forgive myself for the rest of my life."

It's strange to think I live in a place that most people abroad are afraid to visit. Even more unsettling is how many Israelis won't come to Jerusalem for fear of terrorist attacks.

Norma said that she and Michael were seriously considering calling the trip off. I told her I would perfectly understand and respect their decision either way. The conversation ended with her trip still very much up in the air.

The next time we spoke, Norma, Michael and their children were in Tel Aviv. They were as happy as could be. A few days later, we welcomed them to our home for dinner during which they waxed near-euphoric about their time in Israel.

Norma and Michael explained how their respective parents, especially on his side, had strongly urged them not to come to Israel. They spoke of how almost no one in Detroit said to them before they left, "Have a nice time" but rather, "Come back safely."

They spoke of how so many Israelis had thanked them for coming at such a difficult time. They lamented that the tourist sites they visited were so deserted. They told us of their Israeli friends in Tel Aviv who refused to join them at our home for dinner because they were afraid to come to Jerusalem.

As I write this, Norma and her family are at Ben Gurion Airport preparing to fly home. Earlier this evening, when we called to say goodbye, Norma was extremely emotional.

She said this had been the best, most rewarding trip she and Michael had ever taken, and that they can't wait to come back again.

I wondered what would have happened had I advised her not to come when she called us from Detroit two weeks earlier.

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