A friend invited me on a minibus tour of Israel and Jordan with her three children, an 11-year-old friend of the oldest daughter, and about 20 members of her extended family. I hadn’t been to Israel since teaching a class there in 2003.
The first difference observed was changing planes on Christmas morning in the Rome airport. To judge by the decaying terminal, Italy is well on its way to Third World status. I had expected to be interrogated by security personnel prior to getting on the Rome-Tel Aviv leg, but no special security procedures were applied. The only thing unusual was a group of portly Orthodox Jews davening, which prompted a slender American woman to ask “Is there something about Orthodox Judaism that prohibits them from working out?” For my part, watching these folks boarding the plane from stairways at both ends and trying to get settled in their seats, I observed that “Southwest Airlines would go bankrupt if most of their customers were Orthodox.” As with flights into DCA, we were told that we couldn’t get out of our seats once we entered Israeli airspace. Given that Israel is about the size of New Jersey this didn’t amount to much. Overall it was a big reduction in security from my 2000 and 2003 visits, where before getting on the Europe-Tel Aviv flight I was made to open up my laptop and give the security officials a PowerPoint presentation on programming the Oracle database.
The gleaming new terminal in Tel Aviv stands in stark contrast to what the Italians have going for them, a good reminder of high quickly an advanced country can decline and how quickly a motivated country can grow (Israel was a poor nation with a big welfare state and a lot of regulations strangling business; a combination of deregulation and the immigration of well-educated citizens from Russia has fueled a boom since about 1990). Questions by the immigration officer were perfunctory.
On a trip to Israel in 1992 I remember picking up hitchhiking soldiers carrying rifles. Today the soldiers get free bus rides back home and are seldom out and about in uniforms. One of my friend’s nieces is a beautiful long-haired stylishly-dressed 20-year-old. At lunch I asked her what she did with her life. “Three days a week I am at home with my mommy and daddy. The other four days I train soldiers how to unpack, assemble, aim, and fire a 70-kilogram M47 gun. At a Bar Mitzvah celebration in the Old City of Jerusalem, somehow a 5′ tall teenager in civilian clothes was wandering around with what we would call an “assault rifle” (magazine taped to the side, so plainly not loaded). One of our American gang clucked disapprovingly “Why is that child carrying a gun?” My friend’s brother, who lives in Tel Aviv, said “Oh, it probably belongs to one of the adults and they are just letting the kid have a little fun carrying the rifle.”
A $25 30-minute flight to Eilat involved a 30-minute wait in a security line. Despite the fact that no family with children has ever caused a terrorist attack on an airliner (a pregnant Irishwoman unwittingly carrying a bomb is the closest incident that comes to mind), my friend, her husband, and their three child (6-12; all with U.S. passports) were interrogated at some length.
After following in the footsteps of Indiana Jones at Petra, we flew back to the U.S. from Amman, Jordan so I can’t comment on what security might be in place for international flights departing Tel Aviv.
[Overall it was a very pleasant trip. This generation of Israelis seems to have lost some of the hard edge that their forebears had and consequently the hotel and restaurant experience is more welcoming. Also, thanks to the miracle of Android and iOS, no child was ever heard to say "Are we there yet?"]