Behind the Lines: Terminal boredom with flighty journalism

No other westernized country, no matter where, has such a tenuous connection with the outside world.

ben gurion airport298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ben gurion airport298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
News producers and photo editors in the Israeli media are notorious for their lack of imagination, applying a standard operating procedure to most situations - a procedure from which they fail to deviate. On the eve of the publication of the national poverty report, you're going to see the same tired frames of a child standing by an empty refrigerator. In the run-up to Pessah, we're going to see bearded men baking matzot. And whenever the specter of a general strike looms, a camera crew will immediately be dispatched to Ben-Gurion Airport to chronicle the desperate masses clamoring to be allowed out of the country. This week's nine-hour general strike was no exception. The airport is invariably at the top of the list of services on strike in any report, and it's not only the media who are aviation-obsessed. In their bombastic press conferences announcing impending strikes, union leaders also reserve a pregnant pause and an especially ominous tone for the moment they add, "And, of course, we'll be closing down the airport." Social commentators will make two observations here. First, although many important services are unavailable during strikes - causing acute suffering and considerable financial loss to hundreds of thousands of mainly low-income citizens - it is the plight of a few thousand relatively affluent people who can't get away to their vacations abroad which exercises the media's imagination. Second, Histadrut leaders relish, above all, the threat of closing down the runways. ON A deeper level, there is a more fundamental part of the collective Israeli psyche at work here. We might have convinced ourselves that technology, some form of peace with at least two of our neighbors, and illusions of cosmopolitanism have made our corner of the Middle East another side-street in the global village, but at heart we're still suffering from a siege mentality. A few weeks ago, idly leafing through my passport, I realized that over the last couple of years I had left the country by four different routes, other than the standard flights from Ben-Gurion. I flew on an international flight from the local Sde Dov airfield in Tel Aviv; crossed into Egypt through Taba, and into Jordan over the Hussein Bridge; and, courtesy of the IDF, I spent a night in south Lebanon last summer. But, despite the variety of exit points, the huge majority of Israelis leaving the country - more than 90 percent - have all passed through the same gateway at Ben-Gurion. Ever since regular shipborne passenger service ended some four decades ago, the airport has virtually become the national oxygen tube. No other westernized country, no matter how small or isolated, has such a tenuous connection with the outside world. If the airport closes down, you can use another one or drive across the border to an airport in the next country. Even if you're on an island, you'll have regular sea services. None of these options are really available for Israelis. The "international airport" at Atarot in northern Jerusalem has never had scheduled international flights, and stopped operating altogether from the moment Palestinians shot at the runway at the beginning of the second intifada. And the Sde Dov, Uvda and Eilat airfields have only occasional international charter flights. Theoretically, you could drive to Taba and cross into Sinai, but the nearest international airport is Cairo, a day's drive away, and anyway at Taba, Israelis can only get a visa for the Sinai coastal region. You have to go to the embassy in Tel Aviv a week in a advance to get a visa for other parts of Egypt. Crossing into Jordan takes only four or five hours, and you can get a visa on the spot, but it's still a logistical nightmare, and there are only a handful of scheduled international flights leaving from Amman airport. A privileged few have private yachts seaworthy enough to cross the Mediterranean and reach a port that allows Israelis to enter, but that hardly qualifies as a quick getaway. So all we're left with is Ben-Gurion and the age-old phobia of still living in a little enclave surrounded by enemies. A fear that the trade unionists and the media are only too eager to feed. But isn't it a bit too easy to show yet another set of exhausted passengers lying on their luggage, electronic departure boards dotted with "cancelled" signs, and sob stories of grandmothers who won't arrive in time for a wedding? After all, following 24 hours of pandemonium, it's all over anyway. Instead of recycling these worn images, how about a serious debate on the strategic and financial problems of having only one major airport? Two years ago, the Ports Authority was divided into four independent companies. The same thing could be done if a second airport were built, say in the Negev. In such a scenario, air passengers would cease being hostages to every major industrial dispute. THIS WEEK, the scenes from the airport had an additional twist, due to Saturday's international soccer match with England. The strike threatened to block the participation of 5,000 England fans. (And here, let me make a small comment: The coverage of the arrival of the English contingent focused on only one aspect - the capacity of the Brits to drink endless quantities of beer. When it seemed that they might not come because of the strike, the intrepid cameramen went to the pubs of South Tel Aviv to film the rows of barrels that, heaven forbid, might be left untouched. Religious-minded readers will immediately be aware of the Pessah/hametz implications of this.) It is regretfully typical of the shallow and stereotypical sports journalism in this country that it hasn't been able to grasp that there is so much Israeli soccer fans can learn from their English counterparts - sporting tradition and loyalty, for example - that has nothing to do with binge-drinking.