By most measures, travel to and within the state of Israel is a highly civilized affair – modern systems, both integrated and relatively efficient (barring the all-too-frequent labor strikes). So conventional are these modes, in fact, that the issue might hardly even be worth mentioning. So user-friendly and seamless for travelers hailing form the industrialized West that one might even dare to call the experience “normal.” Yet for those with even some minor introduction to Zionist discourse, the word “normal” is loaded and weighty, as indeed one of the great debates surrounding the need for an independent Jewish state was the very desirability of this quest for “normalization.” Theodore Herzl, the figure most often viewed as the father of modern Zionism and the revered visionary of the modern Jewish state has been both severely criticized and lauded for his notion of creating a Jewish state which would be eminently “normal” – a well-respected outpost of Western Civilization dominated and governed by a people whose status in Christian Europe had been anything but “normal.”
Consider for a moment the specific details of a 21st century traveler-to-Israel’s experience compared to the reality not so long ago. Today a jetliner lands at Ben Gurion International Airport and passengers disembark through a jetway into the airport’s modern interior replete with food court and other trappings of a modern consumer economy – an experience hardly worthy of special attention. When I first flew to Israel nearly 20 years ago – and in fact as recently as only 10 years ago – arriving passengers were forced to disembark by descending a staircase and from there shuttled by bus to the arrival terminal. So what? Why is the jetway of any import? A feature of the older modality, the journey down the stairway onto the tarmac, embodied the distinct reality that for many travelers – tourists, immigrants, or those simply coming back from a trip abroad – landing at Ben Gurion Airport was an arrival to the Holy Land and entailed specific emotions and actions, including getting down on one’s knees and literally kissing the very ground (though not the soil) of that Holy Land, often accompanied by tears and prayers.
Today one who arrives at the airport can go directly through the airport terminal and enjoy domestic travel along Israel’s modern railway system. So committed is this country to this relatively recent addition to the transportation infrastructure that the state is currently constructing a high-speed rail line to connect Jerusalem, the airport, and Tel-Aviv. (Adjacent to the central bus station in Jerusalem is an enormous hole in the ground, 7-10 stories deep, where the Jerusalem terminus for the high speed line will reside.) Again this mode of travel is a highly civilized, extremely normal way to travel in a country where automobile travel is emotionally taxing and physically dangerous.
Yet anyone who has travelled the main highway from Tel-Aviv (or the airport) to Jerusalem knows that the specific route that winds through the valleys and up the hills leading to the Holy City has enormous symbolic significance for those connected to the Jewish state – the path is inexorably tied to the creation of modern Israel. For the fields and forests that abut the main highway are strewn with the (painted and preserved) burnt-out remnants of military and civilian transports that were once bound for but never made it to Jerusalem during the war for Israel’s independence in 1948-49. So significant are these remains that not only are they painted to present rust and other damage, but they are flood-lit at night, to always play their role as essential monuments to the past and permanent elements of the landscape accompanying travel to and from Jerusalem. The typical tourist bus travelling these hills includes a tour guide commenting on the miraculous achievement of Jewish Jerusalem’s survival of the 1948 siege and the commuter is reminded daily and nightly of the sacrifices made to ensure the birth of the Jewish state.
Not so for he/she who will take advantage of the bullet train from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem or vice-versa. The pleasant, quiet, ultra-modern, extremely “normal” journey will allow one to work or sleep uninterrupted, but it will also bypass these monuments to the very unique, not quite normal, Zionist success that is modern Israel.