Fixing Ben-Gurion’s lost opportunity

Are duty-free shopping, posters, cottage cheese, cellphones and unintelligible Hebrew ads really all we want to provide our visitors as a first impression?

My recent trip to see the impressively renewed Israel Museum provided the answer to a persistent problem I have had with Ben-Gurion Airport. Whenever I return home from abroad, I regret the lost opportunity in our grand airport. I move efficiently on ramps and conveyor belts through the stages of passport control, luggage retrieval and exit past the seemingly disinterested eyes of customs inspectors into the boisterous country.
I imagine myself a first-time visitor in a group of expectant travelers taking their first look at Israel.
There’s Tnuva, outside the windows of the long ramp, hawking (in Hebrew) its dairy products in a display of mosaic storybook images of a cheerful meadow with a barn; along the long wall on the ramp’s other side, historic anniversary posters recently lined the wall marking each year of the state, replaced for the summer by Jewish National Fund posters.
The posters by leading artists from before the state and onward reflect critical times in Israel’s history, but with no explanations or context, the traveler is left with little to remember. When one finally reaches the end of the ramp, two very long Byzantine mosaics cover a pair of vertical walls that clearly required some decoration.
For the rushing passengers, these space fillers are invisible. I have never seen anyone next to me as I read the small captions, and I can’t even remember the subjects of the ancient mosaics. Then, the ultimate nothing greets the visitor in the arrival hall – a huge Bezeq advertisement entirely in Hebrew.
Except for the Hebrew writing signaling arrival, there is scarcely a hint of the amazing land waiting outside the doors. No magnificent photos of people and places, no maps, no contemporary art and crafts, no images of ancient synagogues, churches or mosques, no suggestion of the outdoor challenges in Nature, no music, no examples of Israel as a start-up nation. Not even a quick suggestion for the tired traveler waiting for bags at the carousel of the vibrant beach and café life of Tel Aviv, the mystery and depth of history of Jerusalem, or the variety of terrain from desert to sea to mountains.
A LONGTIME lover of the Israel Museum, I waited until the crowds thinned out to revisit it, having turned back once before when it was impossible to park. I chose the new underground passageway to enter the museum, emerged at the Bronfman Archaeology Wing and turned a corner to its introductory room.
That’s when I saw a solution to the airport’s lost opportunity.
It was on a large wall next to a stunning array of standing, humansize Philistine anthropoid coffins bearing grotesque faces and tiny hands. The wall nearby was filled with a continuous photo display of intriguing ancient artifacts and aerial views of archeological sites, each one rotating or zooming in before your eyes, each one identified, each one begging to be visited.
In the time it took for the loop to begin to repeat itself, I had seen (among other beauties) the Roman aqueduct along the beach at Caesarea; the craggy ruins of Montfort, the 13th-century Crusader castle straddling a steep spur in the Upper Galilee mountains; the whimsical “Ashdoda” sculpture of a woman in the shape of a chair that caused sculptor Henry Moore to exclaim: “If I had made this, it would have been my masterpiece”; the Beth She’an Roman amphitheater; the regal bronze bust of the Emperor Hadrian; and, of course, Masada and the Capernaum synagogue.
Were this same display to be installed at Ben-Gurion under the auspices of the Israel Museum, it would offer a fantastic taste of the country’s riches. But better yet, add to it or create another one that includes real people doing real things: hikers in the wilderness, a panorama of hi-tech buildings, the ethnic mix of students on a university campus, walkers and bikers on Tel Aviv’s seaside promenade, kayakers in the Jordan River, an opera performance in the Caesarea amphitheater, café life, the Jerusalem shouk, the Temple Mount and Western Wall – you get the point.
And what about installing freestanding showcases along the long loop above the departure hall that would exhibit the products of our potters, painters, weavers, sculptors, calligraphers and silversmiths? When one begins to think about Israel’s rare variety of terrain, its grand and delicate beauty, its human diversity, the ways to affect those coming through our spacious air portal multiply.
Corporate sponsors of displays could carry their repeated name in Hebrew and English of Bezeq and Tnuva, banks and hi-tech companies.
Philanthropists looking for opportunities to attach their family names to this effort, following the model of universities and hospitals, could be offered a menu of possibilities.
When international Terminal 3 opened in 2004 at Ben-Gurion Airport, it was planned to serve 10 million-15 million passengers a year. In 2009, 10.9 million people passed through its gates. Are dutyfree shopping, posters, cottage cheese, cellphones and unintelligible Hebrew ads really all we want to provide our visitors as a first impression? The writer is a contributing editor to Moment and Biblical Archaeology Review.