JERUSALEM -- Have you heard of virtual tourism? It's the latest thing from America, where people who can't go to Israel -- because of security fears, economic constraints, parental prohibition, etc. -- give money to other people who are going. The tourists are then supposed to give the money to local shopkeepers, and tell them the money is from Americans who couldn't be here but want to send their support -- financial and emotional.
It's a new twist on shliach mitzvah money -- when you give charity to a person who is traveling a long distance, the concept being that if someone is an emissary about to do a good deed, nothing bad can happen to that person.
From an American standpoint, it's a lovely idea: with tourism suffering so badly, if you can't be there yourself, at least you can boost the economy and let the Israeli people feel they are not alone.
But on the other side of the world, it doesn't always translate into something quite as lovely. "What do you mean, you're giving me charity?" the Falafel Man on Ben Yehuda mall in the center of Jerusalem told my cousin and his girlfriend when they tried to add on extra money to their purchases as part of this virtual tourism. Try as they might to explain to him the concept -- the guy at Mr. T's army surplus store got it -- Falafel Man wasn't having any of it. "I don't need charity, but I can give this to someone who does," he told them.
Maimonides lists eight levels of charity: the lowest on the rung is when the benefactor and the recipient face each other; the highest form when you give a person the means to make his own way.
Call Falafel Man an ingrate, if you will, but try to understand his point. Maybe Falafel Man didn't want the lowest level of charity, but the highest. Or maybe he was simply insulted by the whole notion of charity, highlighting that knotty relationship that has always existed between Israel and the wealthier Diaspora Jewish communities.
At no time has that relationship come into such harsh light as it has now.
Since the founding of the State of Israel exactly 55 years ago this week, it was the Diaspora that funded much of the building of the State of Israel. Throughout the five aliyot -- the massive waves of immigration beginning at the end of the 19th century -- through the latter waves of immigration bringing Ethiopians, Russians and other ethnic groups to Israel, it was largely Jews from Western countries and their governments who helped Israel quickly become a First World country with a strong military, healthcare, educational and political systems.
That economic and political support created a symbiotic benefactor-recipient relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, one which became increasingly uncomfortable in the 1990s, as Israel started to stand on its own two feet.
As Oslo began, multinational corporations came to Israel, the high-tech industry boomed and tourism became the country's top industry. For Jews around the world, Israel became a destination to visit not out of obligation, but pleasure. Summer programs abounded and by 1999 Birthright Israel was sending young Jews to Israel by the thousands.
With its newfound wealth and promise, many in Israel started to resent what they felt was a patronizing attitude from Diaspora Jews. "We don't need you," was a refrain commonly heard a decade ago from Israelis seeking to redress the imbalance of power in the relationship with Diaspora Jews. And Diaspora Jews themselves began to re-examine that relationship, especially following the disastrous results of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which found climbing intermarriage rates. American Jews began to redirect money from Israel to education at home.
We all know what happened next: In September 2000, the second intifada erupted, crippling Israel's tourism industry, and eventually, its economy. America had its own problems, with the high-tech bust, the falling economy and Sept. 11.
Which brings us to Israeli Independence Day 2003, to an Israel plagued this week by yet another bombing in Tel Aviv and a 60% drop in tourism from American Jewry (see story, page 25).
In the face of terrorism, we can hold ourselves and our children from harm's way by keeping them from going to Israel: summer programs have redirected their trips to Europe and America, families went to local hotels for Passover, and virtual tourists sent money -- instead of themselves -- to Israel.
Yes, Israel very much needs American Jewry's money and political support, and virtual tourism is clearly better than none at all. But when we send charity to them, we are saying that the lack of tourism to Israel only affects them.
What about us?
We are entering the third year that college students have never been to Israel. Without that firsthand knowledge, they are vulnerable not only to losing the battle on campus, but to assimilation and intermarriage, because they might not have found the Jewish connection that Israel often provides. So, too, for the b'nai mitzvah youngsters, the backpackers, the post-college students, the midlife crisis couples, the retirees and the grade-school children of sabbatical professors, all the types who used to venture to Israel -- with programs or on their own -- who each discovered in Israel what it means to be Jewish.
There's something about the Jewish State that gives people a Jewish identity, and it can't be replaced by a summer in Europe, a movie night on college campus or an Independence Day program in Hebrew school.
This week, as we mourn the loss of all Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and as we celebrate more than half a century of Israel's independence, we need to re-evaluate our relationship to Israel, and how we will proceed in the face of the continuing terror.
So before you cancel that trip to the Holy Land, before you become a virtual tourist instead of a real one, ask yourself: Whose loss is it anyway?