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[Don’t] Fear the Travel Warning

After the terror attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016 the United States issued a warning to its citizens cautioning travel to Europe. I read the notice while lounging on my friend’s couch in central London, where I had arrived after dodging a throng of tourists near Parliament Square. The alert warned of “near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation.”

Reading this email at first made me laugh. I’m used to seeing Israel or Turkey – my emotional homelands – frequent travel advisory lists. In fact, most countries I live in or travel to are on some kind of list: don’t go to Mexico lest you become collateral damage in the county’s drug wars; don’t travel to Colombia for you’ll get Zika; in Israel you might become the victim of a knife attack; in Turkey someone might blow you up in the middle of the capital. And now the Americans had put an entire continent off limits.

The absurdity of it all sounded like a joke. I looked at the date. No, it was not yet April 1st! By the time I reached the end of the email, my laughter had given way to genuine fear. I felt goose bumps thinking of the crowded tube stations I had been crossing over the last days.

That a suicide bomber had exploded a bunch of Israeli tourists to death on İstiklal Street in Istanbul a few days after I strolled the very street had not made me nervous. I had even tried to convince—in vain—a friend not to cancel his trip to Istanbul he had scheduled months earlier. Despite my usual nonchalance towards terror threats, I suddenly found myself scared to wander crowded tube stations.

A few days later, I left London and arrived in Berlin, Germany. Then I received the news that ISIS has launched a media campaign threatening attacks in this country, specifically targeting the Cologne airport from which I had booked my outgoing flight.

Instilling fear, disrupting civilian life, creating political havoc, and damaging the economy are the real goals of these terror attacks. The innocent dead are their cherry on top. As people fear for their lives, they prefer to stay in the illusionary safety of their homes. Vacations get cancelled. Travel advisories put in effect.

I believe that travel—when accompanied by genuine cultural experiences and interactions—can be an immense tool for intercultural dialogue between supposedly irreconcilable cultures. When coupled with formal learning, travel can provide one of the most effective means of education. Interacting with foreign cultures, participating in local traditions and ceremonies, and learning about different historical narratives provide the student of the world with alternative perspectives.

Since four years, I have been teaching at a program based in Jerusalem designed to remedy this lack in formal education. Kivunim, which means “directions” in Hebrew brings around 40 Jewish American students to Jerusalem for a year filled with academic study, international travel, and volunteer projects.

Kivunim differs from most other Jewish educational programs through its commitment to intercultural dialogue as a way of understanding the past. Kivunim’s founders believe that “Jewish education for this new century must help to minimize fears and maximize comfort with people, cultures and religions that are different than our own, both as Americans and as Jews.”

The program’s mission is to “inspire its students to forge a lifelong relationship with Israel and the Jewish people through travels across the world – gaining understanding of Jewish life and history together with that of the many cultures, religions and worldviews amongst whom the Jewish people grew in its 2000 year Diaspora.”

The students have a jam-packed schedule. They travel to India, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Central Europe. In between their travels, they live in Jerusalem just outside the city’s ancient walls built by the great Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. Their classroom schedule not only includes academic study pertinent to the lands they travel to, but also language instruction in Hebrew and in Arabic.

Kivunim students on their travels

Kivunim students on their travels. Photo courtesy of Kivunim.

Back in the fall, I taught this year’s students a course in the History of the Ottoman Empire before their scheduled trip to Turkey. However, after the attacks in Ankara claimed the lives of over a hundred civilians in October 2015, the director postponed the trip and decided to include Turkey in the students’ spring trip to Eastern Europe. I was disappointed in the decision but understood the concerns. Turkey was on edge before the general elections scheduled for November 1, 2015. Anything could happen.

Little did we know that come spring, their entire trip to Europe would be postponed following the travel advisories following the attacks in Belgium. I felt a rush of gratitude that my decisions in risk-assessment only concerned my own life, that I didn’t have responsibility over the wellbeing of tens of young lives. Nevertheless, it made me wonder how many other organized trips have been cancelled, how many valuable interactions have been thwarted due to these terror attacks.

Meanwhile, I was dealing with my own fears. Having grown up in Turkey and spent most of my adult life in Israel, I have become accustomed to acts of violence occurring near my home now and again. Just recently, on January 1st, a gunman stormed a bar three blocks from my Tel Aviv apartment, killing three civilians and injuring seven more. I was enjoying a late breakfast when I heard the loud sirens of ambulances and police cars.

Even this attack that had struck so close to my home hadn’t instilled the kind of fear I now felt in Berlin. I even considered rebooking my flight to fly out of a different airport.

Away from “home,” dangers seemed to amplify. We feel a measure of safety when surrounded by familiar people and objects, walking on streets near our home, hearing our native tongue… Foreign places seem more dangerous, even if they might not objectively be so. I think about my 93-year-old grandmother, who insists on staying put in her home in Istanbul. “I want to die here in my home,” she says when we suggest taking her along on short trips.

The truth is that danger lurks all corners of the earth. Some places carry risks higher than others, but in our interconnected world, nowhere is free from danger, making everywhere safe. In the end, I made the decision to put away my fears and stick to my original plans. Postponing life due to fears instilled by evildoers carries a risk worth not taking.

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