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PAGE By Fdice Friedson and Linda Gridstein 1' M,lia Line JERUSALEM--For a tiny country, Israel has a lot to of_ fen sacred sites, archaeology, beaches, mountains, food, wine--and even eco- and medical tourism. So officials are puzzled and concerned that the number of tourists visiting Israel has not grown much in recent years, topping out at 3.6 million per year. At a conference on tourism held in the capital, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said that in the near future he hopes to increase the number to 10 million tourists annually. But a lack of hotel rooms, Israeli bureaucracy and the ongoing violence in the region all stand as obstacles to his vision. "The aspiration to have 10 million tourists, which is three times what you have HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JUNE 7, 2013 Israel will build it so they will come now, seems a big hill to climb, but with the hotels being built here you're well-placed to take advantage of the growth of tourism in general," Alison Copus, vice president for mar- keting at Tripadvisor, told The Media Line. "Israel is doing pretty well on our sitenit's got a 54 percent increase in people looking to come to Israel and searching for hotels and places to visit." Yet, interest in Japan is grow- ing at 119 percent, "so Israel could be doing better." In fact, Copuswarned, interest in Israel from Russia, Spain, France, Germany and the United King- dom is actually decreasing, so Israel must try harder to regain these markets. There is also a shortage of rooms, especially in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, although new hotels such as the Waldorf- Astoria are currently under construction, Israeli hotels are expensive, with five-star properties in the capital going for $500 per night, beyond the budget of many visitors. "German tourists want to spend $200 per night on a room, and then spend more on entertainment and restau- rants," Ilanit Melchior, of the Jerusalem Development Au- thority and one of the tourism conference organizers, told The Media Line. "We are working hard in the center of the city to develop more hostels and boutique hotels." Prospective hoteliers also find the Israeli bureaucracy hard to manage. "It takes many years to build a hotel," David Fattal, the CEO of Fattal, which has 30 hotels throughout Israel and plans to build more, told The Media Line. "Plenty of people, includ- ing the government and the municipality, get involved in the planning process. If you are lucky, you can get the first permit in two years and then it can take five more years for final approval. But I also know cases where it takes 15 years or more." Fattal says it can be frus- trating to deal with Israeli bureaucrats. "Something in the system is wrong--too many people have the power to say 'no' instead of giving them the power to say 'yes.'" Kevin Bermeister, CEO of the Jerusalem Development Fund, has a simple solution to the challenge of attracting more tourists to Israel. "Build rooms, build rooms and build more rooms," he told The Media Line. "Jerusalem is inherently attractive to two bil- lion people around the world. Once we can accommodate those people, they will come." Bermeister also agreed that there should be more lower- end rooms--in the $150 to $200 range, and said Israel must try to attract international hotel brands. Melchior said she recently hosted representatives from major hotel chains including Starwood and Marriot--cor- porations the city wants to encourage to invest in Israel and build hotels here. The threat of violence also plays a role depressing the growth of tourism. Many believe that Israel is in a war zone with rockets exploding daily, and are afraid to visit or invest in Israel. Others say that while Israel might be safe, neighboring Arab countries such as Lebanon and Syria are not, and there are fears that the violence could spill over into the Jewish state. "The main reason why the Israeli tourism industry hasn't flourished as in other countries is that we have not yet reached the peace agreement that ev- eryone would like to see with open borders. The minute that happens we will see an influx in tourism," Rodney Sanders, founder of Sanders and Associ- ates told The Media Line. However, neighboring Egypt, which has been caught in the throes of a revolution for the past two years, still attracts some 10 million tourists each year. Sanders said that if Israel solves its conflict with the Palestinians there is more likelihood that Egyptian and Jordanian tour- ists will come. Some tourism professionals say that Israel has more to offer than just religion and history. "To build in Israel is not like building in Europe," according to David Fattal. "You have to be ambitious and optimistic to finalize all of the stages, but it comes from my heart and I love it." In Senegalese bush, Bani Israel tribe claims Jewish heritage Cnaan Liphshiz Dougoutigo Fadiga outside the Bani Israel clinic near the Senegalese village's sacred tree. By Cnaan Liphshiz BANI ISRAEL, Senegal 0TA)--He will welcome you into his earthen-floor home, introduce you to his three wives, and let you sample their cooking. But Dougoutigo Fadiga does not want foreign- ers to come near the sacred tree of his village deep in the Senegalese bush. "The tree is holy grounds," says Fadiga, president of this remote settlement of 4,000 souls. "Our Jewish ancestor, Jacob, planted it when his people first settled here 1,000 years ago." The lush kapok tree towers over the parched shrubbery at the edge of Bani Israel, a dusty community in eastern Senegal near the border with Mali. The residents, all Mus- lims, are members of a tribe whose name means "sons of Israel," and they trace their lineage to two clans--Sylla and Drame--they say are de- scended from Egyptian Jews. "We are all practicing Mus- lims and we don't want to become Jewish," Fadiga says. "In fact, we don't like to talk too much about our Jewish background, but we don't hide it either. We know our people can from Egypt to Somalia, and from there to Nigeria, where they split about 1,000 years ago. One branch of the two families went toMali, another to Guinea, and we settled here." The truth of such claims is difficult to establish, but West Cnaan Liphshiz Dougoutigo Fadiga, president of Bani Israel, outside his Senegal home with his three wives and one of his sons. Cnaan Liphshiz Dougoutigo Fadiga in his Senegal home with his mother and one of his sons. spoken language in Senegal, bear more resemblance to Hebrew pronunciation than Arabic, which is spoken in neighboring countries. The Wolof word for cheek is pronounced "lekhi," as in He- lrew. One of Wolof's words for wise is pronounced the same as the Hebrew word "chacham." Aweaver or fabric merchant is called "rab," similar to rabbi. The Bani Israel also have a cultural trait in common with Jews: an aversion to intermar- riage. According to Fadiga, the community tries not to assimilate, preferring to wed with members of the tribe who live in neighboring villages. de Oliveira Salazar. "Bani Israel is a striking example because of its name, but there are many, many other ways in which this area's little-known but rich Jewish presence has influenced it," says Behar, one of the few Westerners to have visited Bani Israel. Behar believes the historic presence is responsible for some of the faint Jewish traces still visible in the region. West African musicians often deco- rate the traditional, 21-string bridge-harp known as kora with Jewish symbols, includ- ing the Star of David. And some words in Wolof, a widely Africa has had a documented Jewish presence since at least the 14th century, when several Jewish merchants set up shop in Timbuktu, in western Mali. Jews kept trickling in from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition of the 15th and 16th centuries, and later from Morocco. Gideon Behar, Israel's for- mer ambassador to Senegal, says Jews maintained a con- stant presence in the area until 1943, when the last Jew- ish settlement was uprooted from Guinea-Bissau, Senegal's southern neighbor, then a Por- tuguese colony under the rule of pro-fascist dictator Antonio "I believe there is an ele- ment of truth to the tradition of the Bani Israel, especially since they have nothing to gain from pretending," says Behar, who returned from Senegal in 2011. "They're not seeking Israeli citizenship, nor are they claiming to be Jewish. In fact, their Jewish ancestry and name can only give them problems." Though their Jewish associ- ation is potentially problematic in a Muslim country--accord- ing to Behar, some residents have sought to change the village name in their passports to permittravel to Mecca--the story of Bani Israel's origin is not universally accepted in Senegal. Abdoul Kader Tasli- manka, a Senegalese writer who published a book last year about the community, "Bani Israel of Senegal," says the name has nothing to do with Jews and in fact is taken from the title of a chapter of the Koran. Some accounts do, however, support the last leg of the journey that Fadiga describes. Bani Israel are speakers of the Jahanke dialect, the language of the Diakhanke tribe, which the International Journal of African Historical Studies says migrated down the Niger River, settling in Mali, Guinea, Gambia and Senegal. In his village, Fadiga is known as the marabou, the local equivalent of a shaman or bush doctor. Samba Diop, a villager in his 40s, says Fadiga has special healing powers that allow him to cure snake and scorpion bites with his hands. Children who suffer from epilepsy are encouraged to bite on amulets made by Fadiga's younger wives from goat skin. "When a snake bites one of us, we go to him and then the snake dies," Diop says. Unlike most villages in the area, the Bani Israel live in houses made of brick instead of mud and thatch huts. It also was the first village in the area to have a clinic and electrical generators, accord- ing to Fadiga. The school in Bani Israel is surrounded by a tall brickwall. Inside, teachers give lessons in French, math and science. The school day begins at 5:30 a.m. and finishes by noon, when the asbestos-roofed classrooms become as hot as ovens. Such relative luxuries are financed by about 1,000 Bani Israel who live in the Sen- egalese capital of Dakar or in France, sending monthly donations back to the village. Unusual for the region, the money is not sent directly to relatives but is placed in a communal trust that pays for health services and schools, which in turn service not only the village but the entire remote region. "This place is blessed and its people are chosen," Fadiga says. "But some people resent us for it, so it's best not to talk too much about it."