Flying into Israel on the wings of hope

Haaretz 4/3/13

When the Jews left Egypt, G-d did not take them the quick way up through Gaza lest they be scared by war. Instead, he took them the long way around to help turn them into a nation. On my own trip to Israel for Passover this year, I too was made to go the long way around, not to avoid war, but for the sake of peace. Why? The day that my flight arrived in the Holy Land happened to be the same day that U.S. President Barack Obama departed from it.

A presidential visit always has a tremendous amount of logistical nightmares for a host country. The hellish traffic jams, closed off streets and cordoned off attractions are the cost the public always pay for having the leader of the free world pop by for a few days.

One of the main effects of this presidential visit was the closed off airspace while Air Force One was at the airport. This would be a challenge for Ben Gurion International Airport on any normal day. Double that challenge when considering that Obama left on a Friday – the day when passengers flock to Israel in an attempt to arrive before Shabbat. Then triple it when considering that it was the weekend before Passover, when thousands of Jews from around the world arrived ahead of the holiday.

The airlines were briefed and delayed accordingly. I was on a British Airways flight from London to Israel that was scheduled to depart at 8:30 A.M. and land in Israel at 3:30 P.M. My wife and I had come in from New York earlier, and the London to Tel Aviv leg was supposed to be the shorter leg of the journey.

At Heathrow Airport, we were delayed by an hour to make sure that we would not arrive while the Israeli airspace was still closed. We were warned that we might have to circle for a little while, but that the airline had extra fuel to allow for this.

The flight itself was a normal affair: lots of small children, a few religious folk, and your average northwest London Jew on his way to Israel for Passover. But things went awry when the plane arrived to Israel before its airspace had been reopened, and after 45 minutes of circling, the pilot informed us that he had run out of fuel. So instead of landing in Israel slightly behind schedule, we had to land in Cyprus to refuel – and wait until Israel’s airspace was opened.

At this point, we passengers realized there was no chance we would make it into Israel in time for Shabbat. Cut off from the world, many on the plane silently cursed the supposed lackadaisical attitude of Air Force One and wondered why Obama could not just take a helicopter to Jordan anyway.

Upon landing in Cyprus, there was a flurry of text messages sent by people waiting at the airport. While every El Al flight had managed to hold enough fuel and would land only an hour or two late, we, together with another flight, were pushed back to after 7 P.M. Israelis desperately tried to find out the score of the Portugal-Israel soccer game, flight attendants reassured the elderly passengers that despite the current Cypriot economic difficulties we would be able to buy fuel, and angry British passengers started talking about refunds.

Surprisingly, the religious folk were calm. Without any control of their situation, there was no point complaining that they would not make it in time for Shabbat, and instead they just sat silently, waiting to find out when we would take off.

After an hour on the ground in Cyprus, we were informed that we were clear to take off, and away we went, flying the one-hour trip to Tel Aviv.

When we did land, we discovered that our detour was for the sake of peace: the delay of Air Force One was due to Obama pulling a diplomatic rabbit out of his hat and getting Israel to apologize to Turkey.

Getting waylaid for the sake of peace was a nice start to my Passover trip. A diplomatic ray of light, the delay was a phenomenal way of demonstrating the message at the Passover seder that the Jewish people do not despair; it is not in their vocabulary. We are a people that have survived the challenges and tribulations of each generation of the world, always searching for new ways of looking at difficulties. While in this case we needed a little help from our friends, flying into Israel on the wings of hope, however slight, was the best way possible for me to start my Passover.

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