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Americans Rethink Mideast Involvement

March 13, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hannah Lantos hasn’t bailed out of her study program in Israel but the 18-year-old American says her mom is ``flipping out about the whole situation.″ American Leo Kramer used to sell strawberries and grapes from the Gaza strip and West Bank to businesses in England and the Netherlands. No more.

One by one, tourist by tourist, company by company and student by student, Americans are re-evaluating their extensive contacts with Israel and the Palestinians in the face of growing violence in the Middle East.

In many cases, they find themselves balancing a desire to be supportive of Israel or the Palestinians against their interests in protecting themselves, their families or their investments.

Nancy Gilbert, president of the Masorti Travel Bureau in Boca Raton, Fla., has seen travel to Israel drop dramatically over the past 18 months, but says she’s still sending a steady stream of ``solidarity″ travelers.

``Most of them will call and say they feel a need to be in Israel at this time,″ said Gilbert. ``The person who is going now is different than the person who went 17 months ago.″

Some U.S.-Israel programs have been put on hold.

The dormitories at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, a sprawling eight-level complex on Mount Scopus overlooking the Mount of Olives and the Old City, are virtually empty. The study-abroad program hasn’t brought over college groups since fall 2000.

Heidi Gleit, a spokeswoman for Hebrew University, said there’s been no exodus of foreign students, but after each new bombing or attack, two or three decide to leave. A few called after Saturday night’s attacks on central Jerusalem and the coastal town of Netanya to say they were leaving, she said.

Hannah Lantos, a Chicago teen-ager who’s been in Israel since September with a Zionist youth movement, said she’s been struggling lately with why she is there, even though she feels safe since her group is essentially ``locked down″ in its neighborhood.

``After the bombing on Saturday night, I just burst into tears and was like, I don’t know what I’m doing here,″ she said. ``People in my group would say we need to make a statement as Jews.″

Many American organizations that are still sending groups to Israel say they are adjusting their programs to make them more relevant and to provide reassurance about security.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations now houses visiting high school students on kibbutzim rather than in Jerusalem to keep them safer, said spokeswoman Emily Grotta.

This summer, she says, ``there will be less traveling around, less free time. We’re not letting the kids hang out in cafes.″ Even with the new precautions, she said, the numbers traveling are down significantly.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism said his organization has been sending small groups of American parents to Israel for the past two years to let them see what awaits their children _ and to come home and spread a ``sense of comfort″ to other parents.

Many parents find themselves in a quandary about whether to send their children, Epstein said. Often, he said, the issue is ``if I don’t send my child, am I being non-supportive″ of Israel.

``We do a lot of listening,″ he said. ``A lot of them want to talk it out with someone.″

Politicians are still going, says Ira Foreman, head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, who recently visited Israel with Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe, around the same time as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

``All of us felt positive and good about being there, and expressing support for Israeli people under siege,″ Foreman said. Politicians typically travel with security personnel.

For business people, the decision often is more practical _ whether instability in the region will keep them from turning a profit.

``It’s unclouded by ideology, by sentimentality,″ said Willard Workman, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president for international affairs. ``You’re in business to do business at the end of the day.″

While American businesses with a long-term investment in Israel are unlikely to pull out, he said, ``it’s more of a problem for those Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs who are trying to attract investments into the West Bank and Gaza and Israel.″

To say ``gunfire in the streets is not good for business, is an understatement,″ he said.

For Washington businessman Leo Kramer, the unrest put a stop to his fruit exports from the West Bank and Gaza strip because he couldn’t guarantee that shipments would reach clients.

``A year ago it became hopeless,″ he said. ``There’s no way you are going to get any investment while this is going on.″

The escalating violence has had the opposite effect on Trees for the Holy Land, a U.S.-based business that plants trees in Israel that people order in honor of loved ones. Business has almost doubled in the past six months.

``People are responding to the stresses we are all experiencing by giving to the land,″ said director Catherine Cotton. ``Planting trees is an act of healing and nurturing the land.″

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