Those lucky few who scored dirt-cheap flights on El Al as a result of HaSnafu Hagadol on Monday must have been pinching themselves. As quite a few people told The Jewish Week and JTA, they viewed a visit to the Holy Land on a par with a new Lexus or a backyard pool up until the fateful alert from Dan’s Deals sent them scrambling to Orbitz or Expedia.
“The last time I was there was right after I got married more than 10 years ago,” James Lapin, a grant manager at Columbia University told JTA. “My three kids have never been and I had been bemoaning the fact that we weren't able to go. I was actually thinking of saving up just to send my wife with one of them.”
For a few days it must have seemed like the planets were out of alignment and life, or at least Jewish life, was mistakenly fair. The prohibitive dream of a pilgrimage to Israel Holy Land-ed in their lap like a stack of cash left in a taxi.
Now, reality is sweeping back in, the glitch has been fixed. El Al did the right thing honoring the tickets while quickly putting the price back on the top shelf and making sure this never happens again.
But it gave us a chance to briefly imagine a world where getting on a plane to Israel is the same as going to Miami or Denver. What a world that would be.
Imagine middle class families making the trip together, rather than one at a time or not at all. Bar mitzvah trips would quadruple. Parents wouldn’t have to part with kids for a full academic year. You could visit that aging or sick relative before he or she passes away or attend the simchot of cousins.
No one can reasonably argue that El Al should permanently slash its prices. Of course jet fuel is super-expensive, as is insurance, maintenance and security; 747s are no bargain, either. The airline has struggled since its inception.
But maybe the government of Israel, which has some cash on hand these days, should think more about how to make the trip more evenly accessible. It can begin by subsidizing the disputed tickets (a Bibi Bailout, if you will). They’d make it back in money spent by the travelers in Israel and it would be a rescue for a well-known Israeli company. Maybe some well known pro-Israel philanthropists could write a few checks, too.
Then, why not take it up another notch and assess the expansion of Birthright Israel, which for now is available to young people regardless of their ability to pay (Mark Zuckerberg’s sister recently had a free trip). What about a Birthright Families scholarship program based on need? People could pay what they can afford and return to the U.S. as hasbara ambassadors.
I know … Birthright Israel isn't entirely free. You have to sit through all kinds of presentations. But if bargain-happy families can sit through a time-share pitch in exchange for a free rental car, they'd surely be willing to listen to a Hebrew University egghead dish about Israeli life.
As someone who vividly remembers his first visit at age 8, and has made numerous personal and work trips since, I can tell you there’s nothing like a family trip. It not only bonds the visitor to Israel but the family members to each other and virtually guarantees that the visitors will return with their own families (when possible), maybe even to stay.
The costs of day school, Jewish summer camp, synagogue membership and other affiliations believed to bind us as a people are already prohibitively high and will eventually exclude the middle class, since the rich can absorb them while the poor get them cheaper or free.
Since computer snafus come about pretty rarely, why not take the "gold rush" of people who went to snap up the cheap tickets as a sign that the right opportunity could allow tens of thousands of people to visit Israel for the fitst time. They won't be the only ones who stand to benefit.