Those of us who regularly fly with El Al are aware of the strict security measures they apply. The uninitiated may be frustrated with the meticulous detail passengers experience before boarding a flight. You are instructed to arrive three hours before departure. Plain-clothes agents mingle with the crowd, backed up by police and military patrolling the premises looking for any security infringements.
I remember on one of my many departures, my tour guide was asked a list of questions in Hebrew, and immediately I was asked the same list in English. The frontline security team is thorough, so the likelihood of potential terrorists remaining calm under the barrage of questions is said to be low. Passports are inspected at the check-in desk and the security sticker, showing you have been through questioning, is essential.
I am told there may be as many as eight agents, called sky marshals, on every international flight. Not only are they responsible for the safety of the trip, but they also oversee all luggage searches personally. The cockpits have double doors especially designed to deny entry to unauthorized persons. Reinforced steel floors separate the passenger cabin from the baggage hold to strengthen the plane in case of an explosion.
The name El Al in Hebrew roughly translates as “towards the heights” or “skyward.” It was founded in 1948, the same year as the State of Israel. The first president of Israel Chaim Weizmann attended a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. An embargo had been imposed on Israel, and a C-54 military transport aircraft had to be converted into a civilian plane to bring him home. The C-54 was painted with the El Al (or Israel National Aviation Company) logo and fitted with extra tanks to make a non-stop flight possible.
That original aircraft was repainted and returned to military use. It flew with borrowed aircraft until February 1949, but El Al was incorporated as the national airline on November 15, 1948.
The Aliyah Airline
Throughout its 60 years, El Al has been a vital part of Israel’s courageous history. One of its most famous passengers was Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who was captured in 1960 and flown from Argentina to Israel. But El Al is perhaps best known for its transport of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people in their return to the Land. Thus, it has every right to be entitled the aliyah (immigration to Israel) airline. Many aliyah flights were covert operations.
In the early 1950s, El Al airlifted over 160,000 immigrants to Israel from India, Iran, Iraq, and Yemen as part of Operation Magic Carpet and Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Operation Moses was launched November 19, 1984. In six weeks, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel via Sudan. However, the mission ended prematurely, and the Sudanese government pressured Arab nations to stop support for the program. That sudden shut-down left almost 15,000 Jews stranded.
There has been a long-continued debate over the origins of those Jewish communities from the northern providence of Gondar in Ethiopia. They call themselves the Beta Israel—the House of Israel. Some suggest they may be the lost tribe of Dan, and others suggest they may be direct descendants of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. To outsiders, they are called Falashas or “the alien ones.”
Circumstances for the Falashas became bleak when rebel forces claimed control of Addis Ababa. Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir made a bold decision. He authorized a special permit for El Al to fly on the Jewish Sabbath and launched Operation Solomon. The mission began on Friday, May 24, 1991, and went non-stop for 36 straight hours. Thirty-six El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130 transport planes, with all the seats removed, brought the last of the Beta Israel home. One of El Al’s Boeing 747 cargo planes carried a record-breaking 1,087 amazed Jewish passengers. A total of 14,324 Ethiopian Jews were rescued and resettled in Israel in what can only be termed an amazing miracle.
El Al has made a pledge to the government that at any time of the day or night El Al will organize and operate a flight to carry immigrants to Israel from anyplace within 12 hours. It may be that commitment which affords them a divine blessing as an international airline with the highest reputation for safety and security. El Al has survived terrorist attacks and international anti-Semitic resistance to its success. In 2007, it is almost prophetic that in its billion shekel purchase of two new Boeing 777-200s, they opted to name them for two Israeli towns targeted by enemy rocket-fire: Sderot (near Gaza) and Kiryat Shmona (near the Lebanese border). Like El Al, they also survive.
As for the El Al safety awards? They have earned them.
By Ron Ross, BFP Israel Mosaic Radio Host
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