A trip to the Holy Land had always been a key item in my bucket list (the things I need to see or do before I leave this world). But my wife had serious reservations, perceiving Israel as a country constantly in a state of war and threatened by terrorists.
Back in the early 80’s, when I and two other advertising colleagues, Greg Garcia III and Louie Morales, were assigned by the Ministry of Public Information to look for a US public relations agency to help repair the image of the Philippines (badly mangled by the Marcos dictatorship), we watched a presentation of a PR and advertising campaign created for the Israel Ministry of Tourism to address an almost similar image crisis.
After Israel invaded Lebanon, its international image was severely affected and this had an impact on its tourism industry, a major revenue source. The impression of the general public, particularly in the US, was that the whole country was a war zone.
A communications campaign, created by Issues and Images, the PR arm of Madison Avenue ad agency Needham Harper & Steers, successfully repaired the image of Israel. “Come to Israel, come stay with friends,” not only arrested the erosion of tourist traffic, it restored visitor arrivals to the pre-invasion level.
However, that still failed to reassure my wife. She continued to have apprehensions about Israel. Thus, my bucket list plan had to be kept on hold. But when one gets on in years (we’re now both 79), terrorist threats cease to be as scary. Recently, we both resolved to finally make the Holy Land trip.
As luck would have it, on a visit that we made to Manila early this year, Greg Garcia and wife Myrna sprung on us the idea of a Holy Land tour. The couple, along with several close friends, had arranged such a trip for early October this year. We decided to join them, even while visions of terrorist bombings still played in our minds.
I’m writing this piece at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem. My wife and I, the Garcias and a compact group of fellow travelers, who happen to be truly wonderful folks, are in Israel. We have been to Tel Aviv and the ancient city of Tiberias in the Galilee region, taken a boat ride in the Sea of Galilee (where Jesus walked on water), reenacted the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and retraced the footsteps of Jesus in Nazareth where he grew up. Through it all, we have had no reason to call on God’s angels to protect us. We have been pleasantly surprised at how peaceful Israel is and how vibrant and brisk its tourism industry.
Necia Santiago, who owns the travel agency, Travel Time, has been organizing Holy Land trips for years and has mounted several this year, including our tour. The Garcias and the other couples — Rod and Purificacion Joson, Roberto and Cora Rosales, Fred and Else Rodriguez, and Adolfo and Carmen Liwanag, plus mother and son Carmencita and Manuel Herrera, Jr. — had set off from Manila, while my wife and I flew out of San Francisco.
I should point out that security is very tight in Israel. But you wouldn’t know it unless someone tells you, especially if you are from Manila where you see armed security guards at every turn. The secondary security check that we were subjected to at the San Francisco International Airport prior to boarding our United Airlines flight to Tel Aviv was not SOP for international airlines, but the inspection was not as intrusive as the multiple security checks that passengers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport have to undergo.
Of course, there is a checkpoint at the approach to Ben Gurion International Airport and we had to hand over our passports for inspection. But other than that, our earlier impressions of Israel as a war-torn country where armed soldiers roam the streets and where Jews and Palestinians are constantly at each other’s throat have been completely dispelled.
Our tour guide, Hisham, is a Palestinian born in East Jerusalem. Our driver, Warman, is also Palestinian. The hotel in Jerusalem where my wife and I stayed upon arrival was managed and staffed by Arabs. The driver of the shuttle that picked us up at the airport and delivered us to the hotel was also an Arab.
In other words, contrary to common perception, Jews and Palestinian Arabs (who happen to be either Muslims or Christians) co-exist and live and work together as normally as in any multi-ethnic society.
This is not to say that the tensions and conflict between them are no longer a harsh reality. The 750-kilometer wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians and restricts the movement of the latter remains a constant reminder that not everything is well in Israel and the incipient state of Palestine. The fact that certain sections of Jerusalem are identified as “Arab quarters” and “Jewish quarters” also underscores this. The uneasy situation has also been exacerbated by the decision of President Donald Trump to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But in the areas that constitute the Holy Land, Jews and Arabs are working hand in hand to make the tourism tills ring. Hundreds of tour buses ferry thousands of visitors from all over the world all over the biblical map. On this trip, there are several Filipino tour groups in Israel, including a 73-person contingent from the San Francisco Bay Area.
In Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine at a wedding reception, we joined hundreds of South Asian tourists (either Indians or Bangladeshis) at a mass renewal of marriage vows. Similar Asian groups, as well as people who were apparently from Africa, immersed themselves in baptismal rites in the Jordan. At Mt. Tabor, where the transfiguration of Jesus took place, and in the garden of Gethsemane, the churches were packed with tourists.
Of course, our visit to the West Bank, where Bethlehem is located, was a sobering experience. Graffiti on the Palestinian side of the separation wall reveals the bitterness that the residents feel about their circumstances. But the many tour groups that jammed the Church of the Nativity to pray in the cave where the manger is displayed erased any fears of an attack by Hezbollah fighters.
All of these bring to mind the testy (or so we imagine) situation in Mindanao and the perceived constant state of conflict between the Muslims and the Christians, typified by the uprising in Marawi. The parenthetical comment is due to the general impression (mine included) that the relationship between these two Filipino groups — underscore Filipino — are about to snap because, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “Muslims are Muslims and Christians are Christian and never the twain shall meet.” And then there’s the canard that the only good Moro is a dead one.
Frankly, Mindanaoans should learn from the Israelis. They should explain away the misconceptions of the impressionable folks in the Visayas and Luzon and point out that their apprehensions are mostly in their mind. This is not to say that all is well in Mindanao and that the idea of secession no longer lurks in the hearts of our fellow Filipinos in that part of the country. Nor have the injustices inflicted by Imperial Manila been adequately addressed.
But just as the Jews and the Palestinians in Israel have managed to co-exist, have worked harmoniously and have helped create a prosperous Israel and a thriving tourism industry, in spite of their differences, perhaps the idea of the people of Mindanao — Muslims, Lumad and Christians — working together to make the proverbial Land of Promise a reality can be vigorously promoted nationwide, particularly in insular Luzon.
Perhaps President Rodrigo Duterte could make this a personal project. Perhaps, that way, the concept of a harmonious and progressive Mindanao can become a self-fulfilling dream.
Maybe an ad agency can create a campaign that states, “Come to Marawi, come stay with friends.”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.