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Israeli artists and merchants seek sales in the U.S.

By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 1, 2002

SAN ANGELO, Texas -- The current violence between Israel and the Palestinians is forcing a special group of Israeli Jews to seek relief in the United States.

When last in Israel, I spoke with Ruth Stein, an art dealer in Northern Israel who sold beautiful silver objects for Jewish rites. I had spoken with the her on an earlier trip, and we had exchanged business cards.

Over the years, I sometimes called or e-mailed her for information about events and trends in the Holy Land, especially matters related to Ethiopian Jews.

Until the most recent violence hit, Stein raved about her sales. Tourists loved the narrow passages that led inevitably to her shop. The future looked bright.

A few days ago, I was surprised and thrilled when she telephoned me at Angelo State University. She was in Houston. Though she had a sad story.

She, along with her husband, had traveled to the United States with eight other Israeli artists and dealers to sell their artware and jewelry in select cities, Houston among them. Other cities on the itinerary were Atlanta, Miami Beach and New York.

These artists and merchants have been forced to take their business across the oceans because the violent Mideast conflict has all but destroyed Israel's tourist industry, the main engine that drives the economy and produces the most jobs.

"Most Americans see the news footage and hear about the fear," Stein said. "The other part of the story is that tourists, even American Jews, have stopped coming. When they stop coming, we don't sell and we don't make money. The news cameras don't show the closed shops, the empty cash registers.

"Places like mine are shutting down all over Israel, especially in Jerusalem. No one's coming to Jerusalem. Who wants to be blown apart? We tried the online route, too, but it didn't work. Sales were slow. We need warm bodies and real feet coming into our store."

I asked about her U.S. sales thus far.

"If Houston's the benchmark, we're in trouble," she said. "It was a total waste of time. No one is buying here, either. It's just like Israel. We lost money. It costs a lot to fly to here. I guess your economy is shaky, too. People just don't purchase art and things of beauty when they're worried about their wallets and purses.

"We hauled all these beautiful things 6,000 across the world just to have them sit in front of us unsold. Call it the long arm of terrorism. Call it economic terrorism."

Others in the group are no more sanguine, she said.

A painter from Jaffa closed his studio two months ago. The trip to the United States was to help establish a nest egg to reopen after tourists started to return.

Dismal sales, however, probably have made this trip his swan song.

"He's bypassing the other cities," Stein said. "He packed everything and flew back to Israel yesterday."

Stein explained that most artists and dealers are taking their wares abroad for more than personal, financial reasons. Love of Israel also motivates them. They see their trips -- if they can make sales -- as a way to help Israel's sacked economy. They want all Americans Jews afraid to travel to Israel to buy from them or go online and buy. Each sale helps the crippled economy.

"We see our trip as a combination of personal interest an act of patriotism," Stein said. "If we sell, we take our money back home and spend. If we spend, we help the Israeli economy. This is the message we're trying to bring to American Jews."

Stein and two others, a metalworker from Jerusalem and a gallery owner from Haifa, were leaving for Miami Beach. During a trip there last year, her sales had been modest. She was hoping to do better this time because more people knew they were coming and because the situation in Israel had worsen.

Stein is sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians and its relation to the Israeli economy and social fabric. Avoiding assigning blame for the current crisis ripping the Holy Land, Stein said that when the Palestinian economy hums along, Israel's economy benefits and vice versa.

"Right now, the Palestinian economy is in ruins, and all of the forces related to that affect Jews," Stein said. "It doesn't matter that I think the Palestinians are responsible for the terrorism that has destroyed so many lives. What matters is that our economies are linked.

"Our lives are linked in almost every way. Somebody needs to get us out of this thing. I don't have the answers. I sell beauty. Maybe what I do is useless in time of war. I tell you this: If we don't do well in Miami Beach, we're closing our shop when we return to Israel."

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