From drugs to deaths, Israeli tourists give the Ministry of Foreign Affairs more than enough cause to work around the clock, as they do their best to reinforce the somewhat questionable reputation the country's travellers have abroad.
And the numbers are more than enough evidence: In 2018, dozens of Israeli citizens were arrested abroad, most young and nabbed for smuggling drugs.
The number of Israelis detained abroad has doubled since 2017. The most common substances being smuggled were cocaine, marijuana and a range of "party" drugs. Most of the arrests were in Brazil, Spain, Canada and India.
The Department for Israelis Abroad is the one responsible for handling these ordeals, and for generaly assisting Israelis in distress around the globe.
"We are talking about tragedies that involve young people who are trying to make easy money but end up having to pay a heavy price," says the department head Sima Duvdevani.
"When an Israeli citizen breaks the law in a foreign country, we have no ability to just 'set them free', even though people seem to think we do," says Duvdevani. Her department only has four team members, but took care of a staggering 1,535 events in 2018 alone; and as low-cost flights make foreign travel more and more affordable, that number seems set to grow.
In 2018, there were some 300 cases involving Israelis arrested abroad, while another 260 concerned Israelis whose had failed to contact their families, who were searching for them. Some 189 incidents involved hospitalization of Israelis abroad, which required foreign ministry intervention, while 134 cases involved an Israeli dying abroad. In 57 cases, the ministry had to intervene to help travelers who had abused drugs or had mental issues and needed assistance, and 39 cases involved Israeli tourists being caught up in accidents or terror attacks. In 26 cases, the ministry had to locate Israelis to give them urgent messages, usually regarding a family member who had passed away. And the list goes on and on.
Duvdevani and her team sometimes feel like they are the parents of Israeli backpackers. They work nights, Saturdays and holidays — around the clock and according to needs. Sometimes they have to bear horrible news, like informing someone of the death of loved ones.
"Sometimes we feel like we're psychologists," says Duvdevani. "If someone dies a natural death it's one thing, but sometimes young people die in difficult circumstances and telling the family is very hard. Some stories stay with us for months and months."
Despite the fact most Israelis buy an insurance policy prior to going abroad, the ministry still has to deal with the ones who didn't — and got into trouble.
For instance, a young man who traveled to Thailand without getting insurance suffered a car accident, and medical expenses reached $50,000. His family wasn't wealthy, and when they couldn't pay the costs Chabad and the young man's friends raised the money with the ministry's support. "It wasn't our job," Duvdevani says, "but we coordinated the whole thing anyway. It was so exciting to see him landing back in Israel."
Some recent trends that kept the ministry busy include a large number of Israelis who smuggled khat into Europe, or Israelis who were carrying licensed medical marijuana, but were arrested abroad because they had no permit for it.
Just last week, three Israelis were arrested in Turkey after they traveled there for an organ transplant. The circumstances of the case are still being examined and their alleged crimes are still unclear. In other cases, Israelis who went abroad for organ transplants were arrested on grounds of organ trafficking, due to some dubious medical tourism endeavors.
Some cases that reach the ministry are plain odd and even funny. For instance, the man who called in to say he was worried about his brother, who was at a European airport awaiting a connection. When asked how long it had been since he heard from his brother, the caller replied: "30 minutes."
Then there was the mother who called and asked the team to urgently evacuate her son from Thailand, as he had diarrhea.
In one case, says staffer Sarit Avivi, an Israeli citizen called to say he was in Eastern Europe and feared a Ukrainian lady he had met was going to rob him. "He was in real distress," she says. "We remained in touch with him until he made it back to Israel. It might not be our job, but things aren't always black or white here."
Avivi says some Israelis are incredibly rude, and ask for ridiculous things far beyond the office's remit.
One Israeli father called when his son's plane was delayed due to a technical problem, and was amazed to hear Israel isn't sending a rescue aircraft.
"You sent a plane to Entebbe, so why not Bangkok?" asked the father — and he meant it.