A new national disaster broke out over the weekend: Several hundred passengers got stranded at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Main headlines, dramatic live reports, a real catastrophe. Even before anyone had a clear idea of what happened, we had apocalyptic descriptions buzzing through the air - planes could crash, maybe all of the fuel in the country has been polluted, maybe it's a mega-terror-attack? The end was nigh.
The "biological" pollutant was sent to the top-secret lab in Nes Tziona, and then to Germany. Dozens of miserable victims, whose flight was briefly delayed, were interviewed to exhaustion, recounting their woes to a stunned nation, exposing their suffering to all and sundry and threatening class actions. Finally, all that was dwarfed by the horror of horrors: Hundreds of yellow-clad basketball fans, on their way to the Final Four, were now in danger of missing an hour at a Barcelona casino.
We can forgive the doctors' strike, forget the social workers' strike, and even train strikes don't move us all that much. But don't you touch the airport. Any prolonged strike joined by the airport workers is doomed to terminate at once, because we can forgive or ignore everything but that. Even in the land of real and mostly imaginary disaster, where every sneeze is a potential epidemic and every minor threat is a global travel warning; where a forest fire is a national catastrophe and every lowering of the Kinneret water level is a natural disaster - a state which wallows in its disasters and is addicted to threats has no greater disaster than the momentary closing of the aerial route in and out.
Forget the Western Wall, forget the Cave of the Patriarchs. The airport, including the Duty Free shops, is the most hallowed place for Israelis. When they say "the field," they mean the airfield, and this is the airfield that they mean. This is the Promised L and. Anyone who can get a second passport gets one, and don't you talk to us about closing our "aerial gate." There's no greater proof for the feeling of suffocation and siege, the Holocaust always lurking behind the corner, the innate paranoia and the acquired claustrophobia.
The fact that you can leave the country over land to two neighboring countries - to one of them without even a visa - didn't change a thing. Even the fact that we supposedly have maritime escape routes doesn't make the slightest difference. While most prisoners dream of the sea as the symbol of freedom, we dream about the air.
When we were young and flights abroad were still prohibitively expensive, a fateful question would actually be asked: What will we wear for the flight? Just like the question's close relative, what shall we wear for the wedding? On the way out we would wear the best that Dizengoff and Allenby's streets had to offer. And on the way back, oh, on the way back we would wear the full glory of Galeries Lafayette and Macy's, to appear at our best for the return flight and to impress the multitude breathlessly waiting back here, at the terminal.
Little has changed since then, except for the frequency of foreign travel and the loss of care for appearances. The flight abroad remains a dream come true, perhaps the ultimate Israeli dream. Every trip abroad, no matter where, is still seen here as a source of happiness, wealth and a status symbol. The terminal is still the enchanted gate to acquiring all three.
It's true that at the actual gate there's an inevitable, ugly display of naked racism, with heavily armed security guards wishing you "good morning" or "good evening" just to hear your accent. And it's true the place is off-limits for Palestinians from the territories and a nightmare for Arabs from Israel. It's true it's often crowded and noisy, that we're even more short-tempered there than at the market, but the Duty Free, and the take off to the sky, do something for us that seems quite alien for many other nations in the modern world.
It's a contradiction. A recent global survey found Israel to be one of the happiest nations on the planet. We're all patriots and those who leave here are seen as yordim - literally, those who "descend" from here to somewhere lesser. Love of the land is an ultimate value and criticizing it is seen as treason. And yet, the airport. Perhaps on the day we can learn to live with a briefly closed airport we'll know we've found peace, and maybe even a home.
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