The Jerusalem fast train vs. the powerful media • By GOL KALEV
During the six-month test period, early-adopter passengers on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line got an insider look at the phenomenon of mind-setting through negative news
Railways and the power of media – two new things that shaped 19th-century Europe – were both of great interest to Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Some of Herzl’s Zionist thinking occurred while riding on trains, and as a powerful journalist for one of Europe’s leading newspapers, Herzl fully understood how newspapers could shape public perception of political developments and events (such as the Dreyfus Affair).
The new train line between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv seems to be such a case of media shaping public perception. The line that Herzl envisioned over 100 years ago was inaugurated in September on an experimental basis and for free, running every 30 minutes.
Having ridden the train about 100 times, only once was a train canceled. Official Israeli railroad statistics show a similar pattern, with fewer than 1% of trains being canceled. In nearly all other cases, the trains left and arrived precisely on time. This makes the Jerusalem line one of the most reliable modes of travel, even during its experimental phase!
It is not just reliable, but also relatively luxurious. The double-decker cars are impeccably clean, well-maintained and usually quiet. Given the generally sparse use by the general public, each passenger gets his own suite, which includes a table, dual electricity plug and floor-to-ceiling windows through which one can view the astonishing miracle that Herzl dreamed. This first-class-like travel experience makes the ride productive and inspiring for business travelers, writers and casual travelers alike. Just as Herzl came up with great ideas while on train rides through Europe, so do some of today’s Zionist innovators come up with their great ideas while on train rides through the Jewish state that Herzl seeded.
The ride is not just reliable and luxurious,
it is also quick. The 47-minute ride from the capital to the White City (soon to be shortened to 28 minutes) makes the train a quicker, safer and more convenient alternative than taking a car or bus – the previous modes of transportation that connected Jerusalem, which now, like the horse, seem increasingly outdated.
During the experimental phase, there is a simple transfer at Ben-Gurion Airport from the electric train that descends from Jerusalem to a regular train that leaves from the same platform. One can either continue working on the train (there are 10 minutes until the electric train reverses course back to Jerusalem), sit in the outskirts of the platform on the spacious benches, use the bathrooms or listen to sounds of a piano occasionally trickling down from the station upstairs, while observing new arrivals to Israel as they descend the escalator from the airport into the platform area.
Only 47 minutes after departing Jerusalem, one arrives in Tel Aviv.
After 3,000 years as a landlocked city, during most of which it was surrounded by walls, Jerusalem now has a ‘beach’
BUT THEN a bizarre phenomenon occurs: telling people that you took the train is met with a strong reaction.
“Why are you risking your life? Every other train gets stuck in the tunnel.” “It takes an hour just to get through the station.” “You need to take a bus from the airport.” These are just some of the comments one hears. Some even refuse to accept that it took only 47 minutes, opting to believe what they think they heard on the news rather than an eyewitness account. Regular passengers on the train report similar reactions upon arriving in Tel Aviv: “The Jerusalem line is a national disaster, and please don’t let facts get in the way.”
Not only is there substantial negative press about the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line, but when a train does get canceled, it turns into national news! Israeli major news sites consistently report service interruptions as news items and when doing so, they usually include in the article the history of previously canceled Jerusalem trains. Needless to say, there is no word on the dozens of bus lines that get canceled every day. (Imagine a breaking-news headline like this: “The 10 a.m. 480 bus got canceled; passengers boarded the 10:10 a.m. bus instead.”)
Of course, there is legitimate criticism about Israel Railways, its management and unions, as well as about its prioritizing this line over others, but the intense negativity that is directed specifically at the highspeed Jerusalem line entrenched a mindset among Israelis that is disconnected from reality.
Herzl understood that mindsets are difficult to change. Jews in his time viewed Judaism through a particular prism that included a yearning to return to their homeland, but only in a theoretical, defeatist, “some day” dreamlike way. Even before he launched Zionism, Herzl understood that the Jews would not listen to him, given their sagging spirits and enslavement to such a mindset.
To make his case, Herzl resorted to trains! He argued that when railroads were first constructed, some people “were of the opinion that it was foolish to build certain lines because there were not even sufficient passengers to fill the mail coaches.”
Railroads were an astonishing leap in human progress that occurred during Herzl’s century, replacing animals as the primary mode of transportation, radically shortening distances and facilitating expansion to new frontiers. And yet, far too many people were stuck in old mindsets that were shaped by journalists and others: if there are not many who people travel from Vienna to Paris, why invest a massive amount of money to build railroads?
“They did not realize the truth – which now seems obvious to us,” said Herzl. “Travelers do not produce railways, but conversely, railways produce travelers.”
As Herzl intuited, the reality of a fast, convenient and reliable railway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would likely alter
the dynamics of the two cities. He understood that just as obsessive naysayers spoke ill of the trains, they would also speak ill of Zionism. He described them as “nothing more than men sunk into the groove of daily routine, unable to emerge from a narrow circle of antiquated ideas.”
But at the same time, he understood the power of media and other opinion-leaders. “Their adverse opinion carries great weight and can do considerable harm to a new project.”
THE LAUNCH of the Jerusalem train provides a case study for such “great weight.” It might also be indicative of a broader reality, that those who read Israeli newspapers and consume Israeli media often have a more inferior understanding of Israel than those on the outside. That is because the negative knowledge acquired from domestic media at times surmounts the positive information it provides.
This is neither new nor unique. The foundation of Zionism was laid from the outside and by an outsider, Herzl, who had very little to do with the Jewish community. Similarly, some of the contemporary innovative Zionist thinking is done on the outside. Indeed, Diaspora Jews and non-Jewish friends of Zion can contribute tremendously to the development of the Zionist story – as they can see things that newspaper-reading Israelis, sunk into the groove of daily reporting, cannot. When influenced by the media, it is indeed sometimes difficult to emerge from a narrow circle of antiquated ideas.
To be clear, criticism is crucially important in a democracy, even at the risk of being excessive. Similarly, a culture of complaining, skepticism and dissent could be constructive. Yet, there is a point where opposition turns to slander: about the trains, the price of Milky pudding, life in Israel, the morality of our soldiers.
With Israel’s military might, thriving economy, strengthening alliances with its Arab neighbors and with world’s nations dependent on Israeli technology, the existential threat to Israel is shifting to a political one: attempts to negate Israel’s raison d’etre as the nation-state of the Jewish people and to demoralize Israeli society.
Israel remains a resolute society, with high conviction and an unmatched sense of mutual responsibility. The Zionist ideology that Herzl established remains the ultimate and infinite ideal that unites Israeli Jews, and through which non-Jews relate to the Jewish state. This was evident in the recent elections; nearly all Israeli Jews and an increasing number of Israeli Arabs voted for Zionist parties (Meretz, a Zionist party, got into the Knesset thanks to the Arab vote). Still, while there are those in Israel who take pride in the halffull glass, there are those who obsess on the half-empty aspect.
The two points of the train symbolize diverging attitudes toward optimism. On the Tel Aviv end, there is a tendency by many to complain, while on the Jerusalem end, to appreciate. A few short blocks from the Jerusalem train station, a sign proclaims: “This land is very, very good,” and a short walk away, in the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk, one frequently notices customers at bars pause briefly before sipping their wine to recite a blessing and say thanks. In doing so, they are injecting some valuable perspective to the “I want it, I got it” mantra. The train, therefore, can also turn into a vehicle to spread the Jerusalem optimism to vibrant Tel Aviv.
IT IS exactly this Tel Aviv vibrancy, including the availability of shared-bicycle and scooter options, that for six months now has turned it into something of a neighborhood of Jerusalem and visa-versa. Those Tel Aviv inner-city modes of transportation make the commute from any of the four Tel Aviv train stations to the beach, restaurant, gallery or bar a matter of mere minutes, and contribute to the predictable certainty of arrival time, since, like the train, they are traffic-neutral.
After 3,000 years as a landlocked city, during most of which it was surrounded by walls, Jerusalem now has a beach! One can sip coffee in the Jerusalem shuk, indulge in an urge to hit the beach, and get there in just over an hour. Jaffa, which used to be
known as “the port of Jerusalem,” can now more than ever be considered part of the cafe, bar and restaurant scene of Jerusalem.
Such new realities are not readily visible to most news-consuming Israelis, but for the small but growing clique of early-adopter passengers, this is now reality.
This is also due to those regulars’ familiarity with the train station, akin to business travelers at airports. It might take a neophyte 20 minutes to go through the station’s security and make it down 80 meters to the underground platform. Yet for the experienced passenger, it takes only about five minutes, being familiar with the elevators, having his card pre-loaded, understanding which staircase to take to the platform and even which car is most likely to be quiet.
An ultra-Orthodox man who is one of those regulars shared that the last few months led him to a stark revelation: “I always suspected news is fake, but not until I began experiencing the train did I realize the extent of this. There is absolutely no connection between how it is reported and how it runs.”
Commuting daily from Jerusalem to Ramat Gan, that man said the train improved his life tremendously, and he knows who he should be grateful to. “It is thanks to this fake news that we still get to ride the train for free!” he says, referring to the extension of the initial three-month free period due to perception of repeated failures. That man estimated that he has saved well over NIS 1,000 in waived fees.
Yet, a few weeks ago, the party came to an end: The railroad company begun charging. Jerusalem still has a beach, but now it will now be not just an hour but also NIS 11 away.
When the supersonic Concorde was grounded in 2003, there were business travelers who claimed that the world will always be divided between those who took the Concorde and those who did not. The Jerusalem train early adopters will inevitably soon experience fuller and noisier train rides, as the cloud of negative news dissipates (hopefully Israel Railways will designate an ample number of “quiet cars,” given the nature of the audience and the destination).
Yet those early adopters will always be left with the sense of being part of the sixmonth experimental period when they witnessed firsthand another aspect of Herzl’s dream come true, and in doing so, were vested with the task of preserving and transforming the dream.
“All the deeds of men are only dreams at first,” Herzl wrote, “and in the end, their deeds dissolve into dreams.”
ADMIRING THE view in September: ‘The ride is not just reliable and luxurious, it is also quick.’
THE RAILWAY station in Jerusalem, 1914.
‘IT MIGHT take a neophyte 20 minutes to go through security and make it down 80 meters to the underground platform. Yet for the regular, it only takes about five minutes.’
(TOP) SHADES of Herzl: Railway ticket offices, Vienna, 1923. CHUGGING ALONG at high speed: ‘Having ridden the train about 100 times, only once was it canceled.’