Wednesday, 1:30 am: our taxi arrives to pick us up. We debated whether to sleep or not before departure, and ended up with a two hour nap. Our regular driver is R., a teacher from a nearby village who somehow seems always available to drive. He is reliable, quiet, and only causes me to step on my imaginary brake pedal a few times each trip.
3:30 am: arrive at security gate to Ben Gurion Airport; there has been minimal traffic all the way, as expected. Here, there is a backup, as soldiers peer intently into each car, sizing us all up. I wonder just what they are looking for and how they will know if they find it. Neither R.'s appearance nor the name stencilled on his van reveal that he is an Arab... and then, too, I am wearing a kipah. They wave us through.
3:40 am: the main terminal building is a total madhouse, so congested that it is difficult to push a luggage cart in any direction. And given that there are no tourists here this summer, that means that all these travelers are Israelis. Tourism here may be dead, but we are doing our part to support tourism in London, Prague, and Istanbul. The ground staff's valiant efforts to set up those zig-zag crowd control ribbons on posts are overwhelmed by one of the least endearing qualities of Israeli public behavior: the inability to accept not being first in line. Anyone who foolishly tries to get in what he thinks is a line will find himself standing still while the competition converges from all sides ahead of him. You can participate, you can fume and rage, or you can just quietly maneuver forward until the crowd simply sweeps you along.
4:15 am: we are next for security check. A twenty-something, typically working as a "selector" (as they are called in Hebrew) for a year to save up money for her trip to Thailand, asks us the ritual questions, sizes us up as middle class, middle aged non-threatening Jews, recites the ritual warnings, and puts cryptic stickers in various meaningful spots on our luggage and documents.
4:20 am: since the selectorim are the limiting factor in crowd movement, the lines for check-in and baggage check are relatively unpressured. Somehow, everybody elses' travel agent knew how to do advance seat selection; at least we get two seats together...
4:30 am: upstairs to passport control. There are about a dozen lines, none of more than 6-8 people. Nevertheless, a heavy-set middle aged man leaves his line and walks purposefully over to mine and places himself directly in front of me, calling to his wife, "come over here, I'm in line here." I can't resist: "Where are you in line?" I ask. Seeing the glares of all the people behind me, he silently goes back to his previous line. The man behind me says, "This is nothing -- downstairs it has already come to blows."
4:35 am: X-ray and metal detector.
4:40 am: half an hour to boarding. We consider wandering into the duty free shops - which are many and large and well stocked not only with liquor, cigarettes, and perfume, but with shoes and telephones and refrigerators as well -- but the crowds are too thick to get in. The system is to buy now, and have it held for pickup in the baggage claim area when you return from your travels. (El Al even tried a flight to nowhere a few years ago: you went shopping at the duty free shops, took off, circled for an hour or two, and landed to pick up your purchases. It was laughed out of the sky after the first flight.) Here, one could forget that we are in a recession, with record unemployment.
5:15 am: we board, I fasten my seatbelt and know nothing until I wake up somewhere over the Mediterranean with a breakfast tray in front of me...
Maybe there's a message in this experience of departure: if leaving the country brings us face to face with all the worst aspects of Israeli culture: selfishness, impatience, materialism, ethnic profiling -- perhaps the lesson is that we shouldn't leave. Maybe the classical Zionists are right that the transition to exile is inherently corrupting. On the other hand, if this is our last memory of Israel, why would we want to come back? And yet, we do.