JERUSALEM, Israel – Much of the world only knows Israel from what it sees on television news or reads on the Internet. That typically includes images of violence and words like “oppressed.” But what’s it really like in Israel?
Based on news shows, many wouldn’t expect to see restaurants, shopping malls and people going about their daily lives. But that’s exactly what greets visitors to Jerusalem’s popular Mamilla Mall, just outside the Old City walls.
CBN News talked with first-time tourists about their perceptions before leaving and the reality they experienced after their arrival.
“What did people say to you when you told them you’re going to come to Israel?” CBN News’ Chris Mitchell asked one visitor.
“They questioned it. They said, ‘Do you really want to do that? Is it safe?'” Craig Harris answered.
“Did they say you were crazy?” Mitchell asked.
“That was a very common comment – ‘are you crazy,'” his wife, Kristine, said. “And I said ‘No, nothing was going to stop me.’ People couldn’t talk me out of it.”
“And how did you feel before you came? What was it like?” Mitchell asked.
“Probably a little apprehensive but excited,” Harris said. “You know, we just couldn’t wait to see where Christ has walked. It was more than I expected. It was amazing.”
Some felt coming to Israel might send a message in fighting back against the growth of terrorism.
“I had some friends who said, ‘Why don’t you come along?'” Judy Newcum said. “And I thought, ‘I’m not sure I should and it might be a little dangerous’ and then I thought, ‘Goodness, life is dangerous.’ Really, I came from the Boston Marathon. I mean there’s so much going on, I’m not going to worry about it.”
“If you stop moving, the bad guys win. It’s ridiculous,” Chutz added.
Tuvia Zaretsky arranged their tour with an eye on ancient history and current events.
“You know, I told them I wanted to come over here and look at the world that’s here and the people that are here, the places where the Bible events took place,” Zaretsky said. “And for them it has been an eye-opening experience. And it’s in the context of Israel today.”
Samuel Smadga, founder of Sar-El Tours
, has led tours here for more than 20 years.
“Israel doesn’t come in the category of tourist destination,” Smadga said. “Israel is not the Bahamas. Israel is not even Paris. Israel is not even Rome. I believe Israel is the stage of your faith. And I believe coming to Israel will encourage you in your walking with the Lord.”
And what was it like after these tourists made their leap of faith to come to Israel?
“The Israelis really have their act together. It felt very comfortable,” Chutz said. “The people are wonderful. They’re very professional, they’re very caring and they really want to make us feel welcome. It’s a very, sophisticated, cosmopolitan city.”
“So when we got here, there was such a peace. The whole time we’ve been here, I have never felt not safe,” Kristine Harris said.
And they knew Israel has been experiencing its own wave of terror.
“They told us there are places you definitely don’t want to go, but there are places in any city in the United States you don’t want to go to,” Chutz remarked.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said despite the current violence, Jerusalem is a safer city than most.
“We have the best police in the world,” Barkat told CBN News. “We have the best security forces. And per capital, we’re as safe as London when you really check the numbers.
“Actually, when I fly to America, I pray to come back home safe here to Jerusalem because the crime rates in America are six times more per capita than in Jerusalem,” Barkat said.
And how did these Christian pilgrims feel after walking in the footsteps of Jesus?
“It was quite moving. It brought me to tears a few times,” Craig Harris said. “There’s not another feeling like walking where Christ walked.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever read the Bible the same way anymore,” Newcum said. “I’ve been so moved by being here. I would not trade it for anything.”
It also brought the Bible to life.
“For me it really tied the Old and the New Testament together in ways that I could not have done had I not come and seen here the geography and appreciated the history,” Kristine Harris said. “I felt the Lord with me through this trip and He’s been speaking to my heart and doing a good job in there. I would trade it for anything either. I’m so glad I came.”
“I really believe that after you come to Israel, you’ll never be the same for several reasons,” Smadga said. “First of all, you’ll read the Bible in a different understanding. You’ll be able to visual whatever you read. And you’ll be able to understand the Jewish/Christian background of the Word of God. And you’ll see how deep your faith is. And my prayer is that when you come to Israel, you will leave here praying for the peace of Jerusalem.”
And what would these five visitors say to those who warned them not to come?
“I would say, you got to go – it’s incredible,” Chutz said.
“It’s safe and a wonderful experience,” she said.
“We’re already talking about coming a second time and bringing the kids and grandkids ’cause we really want them to experience being here because there’s nothing like actually being here,” Craig Harris said.