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

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • GOL KALEV

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.”

(Gol Kalev)

AD­MIR­ING THE view in Septem­ber: ‘The ride is not just re­li­able and lux­u­ri­ous, it is also quick.’

(Pho­tos: Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

THE RAIL­WAY sta­tion in Jerusalem, 1914.

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

‘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.’

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