As the plane pulled smoothly into a landing in a brightly shining Tel Aviv, a flight attendant wished everyone a “pleasant… stay in Israel.”
Tell me, who gets on a plane and heads deliberately into a war zone where some of the world’s biggest homicidal maniacs and savages are tossing rockets and missiles toward shopping malls, schools and apartment buildings? This was the question I asked myself on November 19 when boarding El Al flight 324 out of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport in the middle of Hamas’ frenzied orgy of missile-firing. I understood why I was on that flight: I was going home where my husband, children and grandchildren awaited me. But what of the others? The first person I asked this question was waiting on the check-in line. We smiled at each other like conspirators as we waited for the young Israeli security guards to begin their polite interrogation into the recent whereabouts of our luggage. She was about my age, blondish, stylishly dressed, and she smiled at me and addressed me in French. “English or Hebrew,” I responded in the very little French I know. Her smile grew wider as she launched into perfect Israeli Hebrew.
“I wondered if the flight was going to be empty,” she said.
“Apparently not,” I answered, nodding towards the usual crowd one sees waiting for any El Al flight: the men with beards and women in head coverings; the Christian tourists with crosses, the young Israeli men with their computers, the pretty young backpackers.
“What brings you to Israel at such a time?” she asked me.
“Going home,” I shrugged. “And you?” “No, no. I live just outside of Paris, but I have a simha in Jerusalem, and then I’m going to visit family and friends.”
As we explored this subject, I realized her friends lived about a block away from me. Whatever was going to happen to her would happen to me as well.
“Did you consider canceling?” I asked.
“I thought about it for a minute, but decided that I’d made my plans. I’ve been looking forward to this trip so much.”
As the line began to move, we parted, the short conversation turning us into friends. There is something about going to Israel, especially on El Al, that somehow gives strangers an instant connection.
In the King David Lounge, I recognized two women who had been behind me on the check-in line. They were an aunt and niece on their way to visit the aunt’s brother in Jerusalem. And they were nervous.
“We are staying at the King David Hotel, only for two days. Do you think it will be all right?” “I think you’ll have the most luxurious bomb-shelter in Jerusalem,” I assured them. “Besides, the King David is so near the Aksa Mosque. They wouldn’t risk bombing that,” I added with an assurance I must admit I didn’t exactly feel. Just two days earlier, the siren had gone off in Jerusalem. Hamas are unpredictable madmen.
They were Persian Jews and we spoke for a while about the odyssey of Jews fleeing the ayatollahs’ regime, their family among them. The niece was living in London, the aunt in Paris, the uncle in Israel, and numerous other relatives in Los Angeles. There were even still some who remained in Iran.
At this, I shook my head.
“Wherever Jews are, it’s dangerous,” the older woman said.
Zionist that I am, what could I say to that? The flight was full but not packed. Promisingly, the young woman seated next to me was holding a copy of the New Yorker magazine, one of my favorites. I wondered who she was and what had brought her to this flight. But any hopes of finding out were dashed when she immediately put on her headphones, plugging herself into isolated oblivion. Disappointed, I wandered to the back of the plane, where I found an empty three-seater on which to stretch out.
I had a good nap until I was awakened by the unmistakable rattle of the food carts careening down the aisles. The pita bread was warm, the humous tasty. As I looked across the aisle, I saw a young man with a mustache and fashionable stubble, who could only be French, using his cell phone to photograph his food tray. I smiled and shook my head at him. He smiled back, pointing to the humous. “I have never seen this before,” he said.
As I unraveled the mysteries of garbanzo bean spread to him, I thought I’d come clean and admit to him that I was thinking of writing an article about the people on this plane who were deliberately heading into a war zone. Would he be willing to share his own story? He was French. Not Jewish.
“I’m going to visit friends,” he said. “She lives in Haifa.”
“Oh, a girlfriend?” “No, not exactly,” he squirmed and I took pity on him, dropping it.
“With all that’s going on did you think about changing your plans?” “No,” he said. “I never considered that.”
I suppose Jews aren’t the only brave, foolish people in the world. This was reinforced when I decided to go down the aisle and talk to a few more of my fellow passengers.
I introduced myself to a very French-looking older man with white hair, but the language barrier prevented any communication until his wife, a lovely woman in her seventies, volunteered to answer in her excellent English.
They were part of a group of 26 French tourists who were planning to see Jerusalem, the Galilee, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Were they concerned at all, considering the news reports they had heard? They looked at each other briefly, then gently shook their heads.
“We’ve seen a lot of things in our lives,” the woman said, by way of explanation.
I understood her so well. The older I get and the more I live through, the more I realize that the hope of shielding yourself from danger is an illusion, so you might as well live your life the way you want to, with faith that whatever is supposed to happen, will.
I had an easier time communicating with the couple just in front of them, Israelis from Bat Yam returning from a family celebration in France.
“We’d hoped to stay until Friday, but when the war started we changed our tickets and flew straight back. Our kids are there, alone.”
“Are you hoping that the war will be over by the time you get there?”
“No. It’s time we put an end to it,” they said without hesitation.
Yes, that’s Israelis. Start a war against them and they quickly rush back to Israel hoping it will last long enough to do some real good.
In the next row, I found a young blonde in a fashionably cut blouse and tight leather pants that left nothing to the imagination. She was Israeli, living and working in Paris, and she had a little downtime at work which she was using to visit her family. In contrast, the woman sitting next to her was a French grandmother wearing a haredi head covering and a long, modest dress. But they agreed on everything else: They were sick and tired of the lying French media, they declared, who keep whitewashing Hamas. You had to have faith, the younger woman declared, and the older woman nodded.
Not long before landing, the entertainment screen in the cabin broadcast a live Israeli evening news program.
The devastating sight of bombs exploding on both sides of the border needed no explanation in any language. I saw the couple from Bat Yam put their heads together, watching intently, the French tourists whisper to each other. But the man on my left simply adjusted his headphones, continuing to watch an episode of Gossip Girl dubbed into French on his computer.
As the pilot announced our descent, I went back to my original seat, buckling myself in. The girl with the New Yorker was still wearing her headphones. But when all electronic devices had to be shut down, she finally took them off.
“Going for a visit?” I finally got to ask her.
“No,” she shook her head. “I live in Israel.”
And as the plane pulled smoothly into a landing in a brightly shining Tel Aviv, a flight attendant wished everyone “a pleasant, ahhhh… stay in Israel.”
“She doesn’t sound too sure,” I said to my fellow returning Israeli. Then we both smiled, glad to be home.
This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 30 November, 2012.