If I heard the questions once I heard them a dozen times.

"You're going to do what?"
"You're going where?"
"Have you lost your mind?"

Yeah. Maybe I had. You see I, along with five other Christian authors, had been invited to visit the Holy Land for a special eight-day press tour. And I had accepted that invitation...exuberantly.

But was it really safe?

"If you're in the will of God," fellow pilgrim Sandy Bloomfield said to me as we sat waiting to board the plane to Tel Aviv, "you're in the safest place of all."

But why would anyone want to go to Israel in these days of unrest and uncertainty? Because. Because no where else in the world can your Reeboks walk on the ancient rocks of a winding path and know for absolute certain that the sandaled feet of Jesus once strolled across them as well. Nowhere else can you run trembling fingers along the soot covered ruins of Hazor, the city Joshua and his army burned to the ground as they conquered the Promised Land. No where else anywhere can you gaze upon what was once the high places of worship and remember with such conviction the dangers of placing the religion of God over relationship with God. Nowhere else can you touch the Bible, breathe in its stories, drink in its colors, its sights and its sounds.

A Land In Distress

Israel is a country in distress, but not for the reasons you might imagine. According to Tsion Ben David, Director of North America Operations, Ministry of Tourism, in 2001 there were 1,200,000 tourists in Israel. Current records show that 335,700 visitors (Jan-May 2002) have come to the Holy Land, which is 43 percent decrease during the same time 2001. These numbers are significant for a country that makes $4.3 billion annually from foreign pilgrims seeking to touch their spiritual roots as well as those who come to see family and friends.

But is it safe?

Sea of GalilleeAccording to Dana Kempler, West Coast Public Relations Director for the Ministry of Tourism, a person is 70 percent more likely to die in a car accident in the United States than to be killed by a suicide bomber in Israel. Truly, America--unlike Israel--is a country whose people have become accustomed to the nightly news of homicides, rapes, burglaries, school violence, drunk driving, road rage, etc. The Associated Press recently released a report from the FBI stating that violent crime is on the rise in America. Yet because until September 11 we were not a country dealing with the threat of terrorism, we see the land of Israel as being more susceptible to violence.

Marji Cohen, a Christian American who moved from Dallas to Israel six months ago (in the midst of all the hubbub) says she feels safer now than she ever did in the Dallas suburb where she lived. Halvor and Miriam Ronning, directors of the Home for Bible Translators in Jerusalem and founding members of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research agree. "We've lived here for more than 30 years and have raised four children. We've never seen any violence." In fact, they say, "If you fall on the street you will have 10 people around you to help you up."

Yet there is a different threat in Israel today...the threat of losing not only the revenue of tourist, but their love for the country as well. One must experience Israel to truly understand her...to comprehend God's presence within her. One must meet the eyes of the merchants who smile as their customers walk through their storefront doors. "God bless you!" they say as we shop, a joy that becomes even more complete when we purchase. "God will truly bless me today," one merchant said to me in Jerusalem, "because a lovely lady such as yourself was my first customer." I admit I'm blushing even as I write these words...but in America we'd feel a sense of "con" were we to hear the compliments. In Israel, one hears them with the heart, because it is from the heart that they are spoken.

Merchants are not the only ones suffering. In Safed--a city nestled atop a rolling hillside and known for its varying art galleries--artist Ilana Laor leans against the stone wall of her unique gallery. Sad blue eyes speak volumes more than her softly spoken words ever could. "At one time I painted with the blues of Israel. Today I paint with reds," she tells us. I approached her oil paintings in wonder; each painting holds a glimmer or reflection of light somewhere on its canvas. When I asked her about it, she explains that her name, Laor, means "to the light" in Hebrew. This artist--who beautifully applies brush to canvas--continues to hold out for a light, a hope, for Israel because she knows what one must travel here to learn: people don't live in Israel. Israel lives in people.

Why Travel Now?

If you've ever vacationed at Disney World during off-peak seasons, you know the advantages of going then vs. arriving with the crowds during spring, summer, or winter breaks. The same holds true for the spiritual pilgrim wanting to go to Israel. Tour guides are easier to obtain, prices of hotels, restaurants, and flights are more reasonable, there is a higher dollar to shekel rate, and your visit can be stretched out and less hectic than when the crowds return.

Halvor Ronning says, "The groups who come get the royal treatment. Everybody, Israeli and Palestinian alike, are happy to see you. The tremendous tourist/pilgrim congestion at the sites no longer interferes with your visit at all." Many today may think now is NOT the time to visit, but Halvor disagrees. "I highly recommend visiting Israel just at this critical time. A man who lived for years in Israel, and just came back for a two month visit, told me this morning at church services that he has never felt so blessed as during this visit."

Would I Go Again?

The Western Wall is the only remaining section of King Herod's temple, destroyed in 70 AD during the Jewish Rebellion against the Roman state. It derived its name because it is the only remaining part of the western wall, which ran directly Jerusalembehind the temple where the Holy of Holies was located. There, according to the Bible, the presence of God dwelled. There the veil was rent into immediately following the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Today, as Jews and Christians lay their hands upon the cold, smooth stones and slip pieces of paper scribbled with names of those they wish God to remember into its crevices, they find themselves as close to the ancient dwelling place of God as they can physically come. (On a personal note, the moment I pressed my hand against the wall, I felt the Spirit of God rush over me; the prayers I offered up were nearly choked by tears of love and adoration to a God who hears all prayers even as they are simultaneously lifted up to Him.) If you wish to experience the same--if you wish to touch the wall that stood behind the Temple in the days of Jesus--you can only do it in Jerusalem, Israel. Nowhere else in the world. Nowhere.

But don't stop there. Ascend to the top of Mount Tabor and mediate on the story of Deborah or try to imagine the disciples experience as they witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus. Sit in the Church of the Annunciation and recite the Magnificat or at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel overlooking Rachel's tomb and cast your eyes to the valley beyond, to the hills of Moab in the distance. As you do, imagine two women, Naomi and Ruth, as they journey homeward to Bethlehem. Look at the fields, and envision the gentle, Gentile daughter-in-law from Moab as she gleaned in the fields of Boaz, her Jewish kinsman-redeemer. Drive toward the Dead Sea, past the sands of the wilderness, and remember the path Jesus took after His baptism. Go to the Man of Galilee Museum and see the 2000-year-old fisherman's boat unearthed in 1986. Ask yourself, who did it belong to? Could it have been Peter's boat, abandoned on that day he chose to fish for men rather than fish? You can imagine it--you can--if you stand on the banks of the Sea of Galilee and picture Jesus after His resurrection, smiling at the men who had followed Him for three and a half years. "Friends, have you any fish?" He called out to them. In a few moments John cried out, "It is the Lord!" (John 21) Can you hear it?

There's only one place you can...to do that and so much more. There's only one place. The Holy Land. So would I go again? All the shekels in the world couldn't keep me out.

Eva Marie Everson is the author of such works as Shadow of Dreams and Summon the Shadows.  She is a popular speaker at women's retreats, churches, and writer's conventions.