Israel's Ministry of Tourism, facing a 50 percent drop in tourism since the intifada began three years ago, is making an aggressive push into a fresh territory of potential new tourists: Hispanic Evangelical Christians.
"We need you in Israel -- we want you to visit our wonderful state, the land of the Bible," said Noam Matas, the ministry's Los Angeles-based Western United States director, as he stood before about 90 Hispanic ministers and families at a Saturday morning Christian breakfast meeting in Pomona.
As Matas quoted the Bible's Psalms 102 -- "You will rise and be merciful to Zion. It is time to be kind to her" -- he then immediately heard it in Spanish. The crowd at the Shilo Hilltop Suites hotel nodded in agreement.
This bilingual pitch for the Holy Land is part of continuing efforts by Israel and its U.S. advocates to seek support for Israel among nonliberal groups not traditionally aligned with American Jews. On Oct. 2, about 2,000 Jews and Christians came to Bel Air's Stephen S. Wise Temple for an evening "solidarity gathering" run by The Israel-Christian Nexus, a local Jewish community-supported outreach between Jews and conservative Christians. The same travel brochures handed out that night were distributed by Matas at the Nov. 1 Hispanic community breakfast sponsored by the International Bible Society.
There, a standard Israel tourism video was shown but with Spanish-language dubbing and phrases like "exciting" translated to "emoción."
An Evangelical American woman says on camera: "It's so wonderful to see the place that God loves more than any other place on the earth. He didn't choose Florida."
This month, Jerusalem archaeologist Dan Bahat will speak to Evangelical ministers at Israeli-sponsored lunches and dinners in Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Irvine and Ontario, discussing new archaeological findings at the Western Wall tunnel.
"Jesus sells everywhere," said the Rev. Fernando Tamara, the 32-year-old, Peruvian-born Orange County-based Assembly of God preacher who translated the breakfast speech by Matas. "For us, the United States is a bridge [to Israel]. In this group here, we've already committed, to back up the nation of Israel."
Outside the ministers' breakfast, a woman hugged her toddler son, Joshua, the two having moved to Santa Ana a month ago from northern Mexico so they could be with her minister husband at his new congregation. She said she wants to visit Israel to be "where my Lord was."
The International Bible Society's breakfast outreach included a 16-page, single-spaced list of names of Hispanic ministers and church leaders from 900 Southern California churches whose congregants are eager to make apolitical, spiritual pilgrimages.
The tourism ministry recently saw 30 of Seattle's Evangelical ministers travel to Israel, all spurred by one pastor.
"We came to him and said, 'Look, this is the time to go to Israel,'" Matas said.
Another 25-30 Los Angeles-based conservative Korean Presbyterian pastors will be traveling soon, and about 30 Hispanic preachers will travel to Israel next spring on a pastors-only trip with Colorado-based Arvada Travel.
The Assembly of God and Calvary Chapel churches are uniquely interested in visiting Israel, braving the terrorist threats and flying east.
"They're still going to Israel," said Matas, who added that Roman Catholics are not being targeted for tourism since Catholic visitors peaked around Pope John Paul II's 2000 trip to Israel. "They love Israel, they care about Israel. They just don't go as much as they did."
Some Jews are concerned about pro-Israel alliances with conservative Protestants, some of whom advocate converting Jews. But such activities are of no interest to Hispanics like Tamara, whose Evangelical Christianity is distinct from fundamentalist Christians like Southern Baptists (though Baptists currently are not seeking Jewish converts).
Tamara said he opposes Jewish conversion out of respect.
Many mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics also have allied themselves so forcefully with Palestinians that Israeli tourism officials know their budget cannot be spent on them; every dollar must count to fight a tourism drop-off that saw the ministry recently shutter its Dallas and Chicago offices. Unlike liberal Protestants, whose churches dwindle as Latino congregations grow, most conservative Hispanic Protestants view Israel as sacred, a place to be protected rather than condemned for defending itself.
"Let God handle that situation," Tamara said. "We pray every day for Jerusalem."
Though Tamara said he and other Hispanic preachers are neutral on the Israel-Arab conflict, he later said that when the subject comes up, a typical ministers' response is, "Which group do you elect [to support] -- Palestine or Israel? We will say Israelis."