The Sanctity of the Airport

How will it ever be possible to lead a social or political struggle here if the willingness to pay a personal price for a collective goal stops at Ben-Gurion International Airport?

Forget about the Western Wall and the Cave of the Patriarchs. The most sacred site to Israelis is Ben-Gurion International Airport. What does that say about society, when its supreme value is traveling abroad? A general strike hits the country and the only public discussion concerns the future of the vacation plans made by several thousand passengers. Hospitals, clinics, trains, welfare offices and the offices of the National Insurance Institute can remain shut, just don't close the terminal. Who cares whether the strike is justified or not, what matters most is to arrive safely at the duty-free shop, en route to the "all-inclusive" vacation package.

Although there has never been respect for strikers or some appreciation of the strike weapon here, not once has it all been so blatantly channeled toward the airport terminals. Call it healthy hedonism or normalcy - still, one can't help but get angry in the face of the total collapse of such values as social solidarity, concern for the less fortunate, a willingness to pay a personal price and mutual assistance, as archaic as they may seem. There are strikes in Europe, too. But there a public discussion is held about the strikes' goals and achievements, and not just about the length of the check-in line. Here, on the other hand, the justice of a strike is determined by the degree of suffering - genuine or inflated - it causes certain sectors of the economy. The media's image of Ofer Eini, chair of the Histadrut labor federation, is determined by the number of passengers flying to Barcelona rather than on the basis of the workers for whom he is fighting.

The media are cynically nurturing this worrisome trend. On the day of the strike, none of them were interested in what happened at the hospitals and the welfare offices that were on strike, nor in the workers' demands or the government's position. All eyes were focused on Ben-Gurion, the airport, with which the broadcasters are far more familiar than with the welfare offices. I love you, terminal: There were only heartrending stories about children who dreamed of Antalya and whose dream was about to be delayed by a day. The truly unfortunate - those who have never seen an airport in their lives, whose children have never been in a hotel - do not photograph well. That's why they were missing from the media's agenda, as were the workers for whose sake the strike was called.

There are still many people in Israel for whom a vacation abroad is but a dream. During the first half of 2007, 2.2 million Israelis left the country for vacation - a small part of the country's total population. As affordable as trips abroad have become, there are still many who have never been to Ben-Gurion 2000. The general strike affected them, too, but it did so while they were waiting in line to receive their income supplement allowances. Nobody counted them. Of course nobody counted the 3 million Palestinians who don't even dare to dream of going abroad, with or without flight cancelations. They are very familiar with interminable lines, exhausting waits, nerve-wracking situations and humiliations - on the way to work or to school. "The passengers are asked to arrive at the airport five hours before flight time," and people become upset. For about one million Israelis - Israeli Arabs - this is the routine. Strike or not: They have to walk this Via Dolorosa, which was bemoaned in all current events programs during the recent strike, before every flight.

But most of all, we should be angry at the loss of solidarity. It turns out that when the strong unions go on strike to demand essential services for their friends in the local councils, whose salaries have not been paid for months, or for a miniscule addition to the salaries of employees in the public sector, there is no willingness here to identify with them or to make sacrifices. That is depressing news. In a society that has been in a morbid coma for years, in which only the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers are willing to fight over a public issue, the descriptions of the "suffering" of those traveling abroad was cause for despair. It's not pleasant to miss a flight, it's even worse to lose a ticket, but how will it ever be possible to lead a social or political struggle here, as just as it may be, if the willingness to pay a personal price for a collective goal stops at Ben-Gurion International Airport?