the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

El Al's secret code

I’ve passed it countless times before, but on my way back from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem today, the huge El Al ad plastered on the wall of a building at the main entrance to the capital caught my eye anew. It’s completely cheesy and maybe even a bit sacrilegious, but there’s something about how it embodies Israeli chutzpah that appeals to the over-analyzer in me.

The ad depicts a plane flying through a perfectly blue sky, so close to the Western Wall that in real life, fighter jets would have been scrambled to see what the hell that pilot was doing. Something about how the ad is on a wall made of Jerusalem stone and how the Western Wall is, of course, also made of stone almost makes it seem like the scene really is right in front of you – especially if you’ve spent most of the ride asleep and you’re in a kind of squinty-eyed haze as the bus rolls into town.

There are two other elements that make this ad stand out in my mind:

- The tacky use of an overexposed religious symbol for crass commercial gain, in a way that reminds me of my parents’ wedding album from the '70s, in which the photographer made even tackier use of the selfsame overexposed religious symbol by superimposing my parents on the Kotel even though they got married in Queens.

(This tactic of El Al’s, by the way, does not seem to have had any effect on the Haredim who only want to patronize airlines that fly on Shabbat as long as the airlines are not named El Al.)

- The dual message for Israelis and for tourists. In English, on the central portion of the ad, it says, “El Al – It’s not just an airline, it’s Israel.” On the bottom of the ad, below the picture, it says in Hebrew, “El Al is bringing tourism back to Israel” - "אל על מחזירה את התיירות לישראל."

The English tagline is fully comprehensible and meshes with the visual message, in which El Al, apparently, hopes that the next time people think of the Western Wall they will automatically think of El Al as well and book a ticket.

The second, Hebrew message – and the fact that there is one in the first place – is what really makes me stop and think (and not just because of the traffic that almost inevitably clogs the main entrance to Jerusalem - right in front of the ad, conveniently enough).

I see the Hebrew message as a kind of (not-so-)secret code hidden in plain sight, one that makes reference to the ad almost as though it weren’t part of it. The English message targets tourists, but the Hebrew message doesn’t really target Israelis so much as it explains the ad to the local audience. “You see?” it says. “We’re not just a company; we’re your source of rich Americans. See above.”

I think that what ultimately strikes me most about the ad is that El Al’s secret code, like many Israelis, seems to simultaneously welcome tourists – and their money, of course - while talking about them behind their backs and assuming they won’t understand.

The concept raises all kinds of possibilities for unexpected (if not entirely straightforward) honesty. Maybe the downtown Jerusalem store with the English sign saying "Welcome brave tourists" should take a lesson from El Al and tack on a Hebrew addendum: “We’ll only charge you twice as much, habibi.”



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