“It’s more than an airline… it’s Israel” has been El Al’s English slogan for years. But has this historic airline forgotten her important roots?
El Al literally was created by Israel for Israel. It all dates back to 1948. President Chaim Weizmann attended a conference in Geneva in September of that year. An Israeli government airplane was scheduled to fly him home, but was not allowed to land in Switzerland due to an embargo. The always creative Israeli mind discovered a way around the restriction by simply painting a newly invented El Al logo onto a C-54 military transport aircraft and calling it a civilian airline.
Two months later El Al was formally incorporated and a year later the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency, and other Jewish organizations helped fund the acquisition of two DC-4s. Before long El Al was flying passengers to Israel from Paris, in her very first regularly scheduled international flight. And the airline’s sharp ascent to becoming the pride and joy of Israel would only continue from there.
Over the years El Al has been a crucial part of Jewish History. In the early 1950s the National Airline airlifted over 160,000 Jews from Yemen, India, Iraq and Iran home to Israel as part of Operation Magic Carpet and Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. It would be a feat that El Al would repeat time and time again. In 1991 an El Al 747 broke the record for most passengers ever on a single plane by carrying over 1100 Ethiopian Jews home to Israel as part of Operation Solomon. In all over 14,000 Jews were transported during that mission and El Al aircrafts were responsible for a significant portion of that staggering number. But El Al did not stop there. And after those airlifts, over the next three years the airline would fly over 400,000 Jewish people from the former Soviet Union home to the Land of Israel.
Israel as a nation unlike any other needs a national airline. The Jewish People are scattered all over the world and a national airline is a critical bridge to unite us. This is not a new idea. Taglit-Birthright Israel realized this over a decade ago. The most effective way to strengthen the bond between Israel and any Jew (or even non-Jew for that matter) is simply to bring them here. Solidarity trips by groups of all shapes and sizes also serve in the nation’s best interests in a special way and must be emphatically encouraged.
Unfortunately, the past decade saw the privatization of El Al and today the airline is more dedicated to keeping public shareholders happy than she is to fulfilling any sort of national mission. A perfect case in point happened recently when a profit-motivated El Al attempted to charge the President of the State of Israel an exorbitant $4,700 to haul a security mandated oxygen tank. Mr. Peres’ Office called their bluff and chose to fly Air Canada instead. That El Al would charge the President of Israel anything at all, even for a standard ticket, sends a message louder than any jumbo-jet engine. It should be viewed as an honor for a national airline to service the State’s highest ranking ceremonial leader, not a business opportunity. (El Al reportedly apologized but the damage was done. The President flew with another airline.)
A true national airline would serve the nation by allowing the Jewish people easy access to (and from) our Homeland whether for Aliyah purposes or simply to visit. Exorbitant ticket prices, as many feel is the case today, does not constitute easy access. A national airline would not be motivated by profit but would serve as a public service and as such would be free to offer lower prices simply to cover her costs. The costs of making Aliyah has traditionally been covered not by the Olim, but by the State or related agencies and so here to the airline would serve to provide free service to all Olim on these Aliyah journeys.
Israel would also benefit from the increase in visitors. Obviously the tourism industry would thrive more but furthermore easy access to Israel would encourage diaspora Jews to visit and to visit often. They would become more knowledgeable about the culture and issues impacting Israel which would lead to more much needed support. These visitors may even invest in real estate opportunities here and then naturally eventually make Aliyah. Increasing Aliyah from the west would forever improve the Jewish State. Western Aliyah has always been a tough nut to crack and a National Airline that makes travel inexpensive may be an important part of the solving the puzzle.
Today, Israel needs a national Airline more than ever before, but despite her slogan, sadly El Al is not exactly justified in calling herself Israel.Pinchas Orbach
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