WIN EXCLUSIVE: Israeli tour guides blast gov’t – Don’t our lives matter?

Tour Guides are being left impoverished and depressed by the continued shutdown of Israel’s tourism industry. 

By Donna Rachel Edmunds, World Israel News

Israeli tour guides gathered in Tel Aviv Monday to protest the ongoing shutdown of the Israeli tourism industry.

2019 was a record year for tourism in Israel, with some 4.5 million tourists visiting the Jewish State. But in March 2020, the Israeli government closed the airport to tourists and, bar a few false starts, it hasn’t been opened since. That’s left Israel’s 5,000 or so professional tour guides out of work and with very few options.

Tour guides protest in Tel Aviv against the continued shut down of the tourism industry. Dec 27, 2021. Photo: Courtesy

Tour guides protest in Tel Aviv against the continued shut down of the tourism industry. Dec 27, 2021. Photo: Courtesy

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman angered tour guides two weeks ago when, during a cabinet meeting, he told them bluntly: “Find other work.”

The outcry forced him to clarify his statement the following day, but he did not back down. “My wording could have been more successful, but the numbers are undeniable,” he said, explaining that the finance ministry is working on a compensation package. Tour guides have been given the option to take grants retrain in tech industries, or to take jobs handing out fines to people breaking COVID regulations.

Tour guides protest in Tel Aviv against the continued shut down of the tourism industry. Dec 27, 2021. Photo: Courtesy

Tour guides protest in Tel Aviv against the continued shut down of the tourism industry. Dec 27, 2021. Photo: Courtesy

“How dare they?” tour guide Josh Levinson told World Israel News. He explained that his anger “isn’t about specific policy, it’s about the fact that from the beginning of this, the government appears to have lost its mind. The sensible thing to do was to have protected the vulnerable. Instead I’ve had my life destroyed, and so have bus drivers, souvenir shop owners, and so many others in the industry, for a virus with a 99.9% survival rate.”

As for the idea of retraining, he was equally scathing. “I’m nearly 52. What industry am I going to retrain in?” he asked bluntly.

It was a question echoed by Ganit Peleg, chair of the Tour Guides Association.

“What is Liberman talking about?! She exclaimed. “The love and commitment that tour guides have for this country is not something you can easily find. These are people who have studied, they have made all sorts of commitments, it’s very difficult to be a tour guide. Some people are going to need compensation, and even for those who are retraining, they need something to live on while studying.”

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Unfortunately the highly specialist skills that tour guides employ are not easily transferable, Peleg pointed out. Many guides are older, in their 50s, 60s or even 70s, and for a large number, Hebrew is not their first language. In addition, professional tour guides have already completed a two year course and passed a stringent exam to qualify for a license, which must be renewed regularly.

Peleg further highlighted that, as the first point of contact for visitors to Israel, many of whom know only what they’ve been told on the news, tour guides carry a heavy responsibility in showcasing Israel as an inclusive democracy to the world.

 

A tour guide holds up a sign blaming the Israeli government for the prolonged shutdown of the tourism industry. Tel Aviv, Dec 27, 2021. Photo: Josh Levinson

A tour guide holds up a sign blaming the Israeli government for the prolonged shutdown of the tourism industry. Tel Aviv, Dec 27, 2021. Photo: Josh Levinson

Consequently, the financial considerations are only part of the equation. Peleg admitted that many guides she was talking to were very depressed due to constant policy changes which have seen the government dangle a return to tourism in front of the industry repeatedly, only to snatch it away again.

That despondency was on show at the protest. Tour guide Itamar Keiden, whose last tour was in March 2020, admitted he’d only attended the protest “in solidarity with my friends,” saying “the goals [of the protest] are not so clear.”

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He wanted to see more help from the government for those attempting to find different work.

A tour guide holds a sign responding to Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who told tour guides "Find other work". Tel Aviv, Dec 27, 2021 Photo: Josh Levinson

A tour guide holds a sign responding to Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who told tour guides “Find other work”. Tel Aviv, Dec 27, 2021 Photo: Josh Levinson

Levinson, too was pessimistic about the protest’s success. “I don’t think the government really cares what happens to us,” he said, admitting that he too had merely attended the protest for the camaraderie.

Peleg too. When asked what she would say to Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett if given a chance, she replied: “Bennett, look into my eyes and tell me I am not important enough for you. Look into the eyes of the other guides, who have dedicated all their lives to being ambassadors for this country. Are we not people too? Don’t we need to feed our kids, and ourselves?”