Heathen in the Holy Land: How I became an Israeli pseudo-celebrity

The author (center, handsome striped sweater) in a screen cap from Israel's Channel 10 news.

To read part one of Gadling’s new “Heathen in the Holy Land” series, go here.

When I told a friend of mine I was headed to Israel for a week, he advised me, only half-jokingly, to look out for car-bombs. A fellow member of my fantasy baseball league suggested that if the worst should happen to me on this trip, we could re-name our league “The Aaron Hotfelder That’s-Why-You-Don’t-Take-a-Trip-to-a-War-Zone Memorial League.”

These reactions, and many others like them, reinforced what I already knew: that my friends are shit-heads. But more importantly for the purposes of this article, that Israel has a definite image problem.

Indeed, most people only ever hear of the country on TV news reports accompanied by stock footage of soldiers launching M-16s or in articles with headlines like “Israeli Soldiers Allege Indiscriminate Killing in Gaza,” or “Israel Hunts West Bank Attackers.”

Our guide Ziv Cohen is grilled by a reporter.The Ministry of Tourism for Israel is not blind to the country’s war-torn reputation. Last week, it sponsored a trip for a group of seven travel bloggers (myself included) aimed at improving the country’s public standing. The Ministry showed us the country’s swankiest hotels, most impressive ruins, and most breathtaking landscapes in the hopes that we’d give the country some positive coverage in the blogosphere as a result.

Press trips, those paid-for junkets that have been called travel writing’s “dirty little secret,” are actually relatively common in the print media. But a press trip for bloggers? Isn’t that a waste of money?

That’s what reporters from two different Israeli news programs wanted to know, along with one other important question: “Just what is a blogger?” To answer these questions, one of the reporters followed us around for several hours during our walking tour of Tel Aviv, while the other reporter accompanied us to Jerusalem’s Old Town. Both were followed by a man wielding a giant TV camera and another man carrying a boom mic. Needless to say, our group of seven felt a little like celebrities as we strolled to places like the “Last Supper Room” in Jerusalem and the historic Neve Tzedek neighborhood in Tel Aviv.

National Geographic Traveler's Janelle Nanos trying to dodge some questions.We got the the same look from each native Israeli who saw the camera crew following us around– a look which seemed to say, “Who the hell are these people?” To be sure, we did not look like movie stars. Our ragtag group mostly had faces for radio, if you catch my drift.

But these were my fifteen minutes of fame, dammit, and I was going to enjoy them. At a local wine shop in Tel Aviv, I could tell that our group, tired from the brutal schedule which is a staple of most press trips, wasn’t giving the cameraman much material. So with the camera rolling, I ventured a question to the rest of the group:

“So, do you think many people will decide to come to Israel after reading about it on our blogs?” I asked. “Because I do. I’ll bet people flock to Israel in droves after reading our glowing reviews!” The rest of the group stifled laughs and nodded their heads, aware that this contrived conversation was being made for the benefit of the reporter and camera man. Sure, it was a blatant attempt at getting on TV, but I didn’t get care.

In the end, that reporter’s segment on our group– and more importantly, my Israeli TV debut– was pre-empted for a three-hour press conference in which the country’s former president denied a rape charge. (This only served to reinforce my long-standing opposition to rape.) Thankfully, our group’s TV premiere came a couple days later in a two-minute segment on Channel 10. (Brush up on your Hebrew and watch it here.)

While my speaking parts were all cut out of the segment, I was featured quite prominently in several shots (see top photo, striped sweater), proving once again, as if any more proof is needed, that Andy Warhol was right about that fifteen minutes thing.

Disclosure: This week-long trip to Israel was sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Tourism. Unlike the trip, my opinions were not paid for because, dammit, my integrity is not for sale. That is not to say I wouldn’t entertain the right offer.