In May of 1939, the MS St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany, to Cuba with 937 Jewish German passengers aboard. They were fleeing for freedom and for their lives.
The boat made its way to Cuba but was denied entry to port. Even though the passengers had legal visas, the Cuban government would not allow the travelers to even enter as visitors. Only 22 passengers, non-Jews, were allowed to disembark in the Caribbean. The rest stayed on the boat and saw the lights and nightlife of Havana from less than a mile away, but they could not touch it. After six tumultuous days anchored on the coast of the haven of Havana, the boat ventured to other ports.
The boat was denied entry to the United States and even to Canada. Eventually, the St. Louis returned to its point of origin and the passengers disembarked in various cities in Western Europe.
It is estimated that one- third of the people on that boat were murdered during the Holocaust.
I often think of the St. Louis when I visit Israel: It was the voyage that failed to find Jews a new home. For the past 66 years, the reality of a Jewish state has enabled us to say, whether in France or Berlin or London or Shanghai or Chicago, that Jews can always come home and always have a place to land.
Then the Federal Aviation Administration got involved.
The unprecedented decision by the FAA to ban flights to Israel felt to me like another administrative body denying entry to those who wanted to go to Israel – and come home. When the FAA prohibited American airliners from flying to Tel Aviv, they denied men and women returning to fight in the IDF the ability to go home and defend their country. They stopped mothers and fathers returning to visit their children, many of them fighting in Gaza, the opportunity to wash laundry and make food and give hugs. The FAA denied temple trips and solidarity missions the ability to offer love and support and supplies. They stopped Jews from coming home.
The purpose of Israel was to never allow another doomed St. Louis voyage. The FAA trumped that.
The FAA’s ill-fated decision will have lasting and reverberating effects.
Firstly, it hinders world opinion on the safety and accessibility of Israel. In the book “Start Up Nation,” Dan Senor and Saul Singer explain that during the first Gulf War while Scud missiles were raining down on Tel Aviv, Intel, operating and producing in Israel, was manufacturing the i386 processor chip used by most of the world’s computers. There was tremendous worry that the war would affect Intel’s productivity. Worse than that, other countries and companies would see Israel as a volatile region that could not meet quotas and deadlines when it was called into war, a somewhat regular occurrence. But Intel diligently kept production going even as Scud missiles fell and Israel went on to become a central address for tech companies and global businesses.
However, when the FAA banned flights last week, it hindered productivity and accessibility for companies ranging from Google to Teva. It told companies around the world that Israel might be a place where their staff is not safe (which is preposterous) and also communicates that they might not get supplies and personnel as needed. That is a tragic and criminal outcome of this senseless decision.
Secondly, the FAA decision told new visitors to Israel that they should be fearful before they even land in the country. That kind of fear-mongering is unfounded and feeds the lowest common denominator. I always tell travelers from our community that the most dangerous part of our trip will be arriving in Newark!
Thirdly, the FAA ban halted tourism, a major source of revenue and strength for Israel. I love going to Israel with people who have never been before and watching their personal and spiritual transformation. They are in awe of the food, the development, the safety, and the history of this amazing country, all at the same time. Seeing the culture of tourism and how it positively infects its visitors inspires me.
Because of the FAA ban, many trips were canceled, not only for the duration of the ban, but also for the future, as most airlines offered a no-questions-asked refund for any travel to Israel. This takes a huge bite out of the economy and demoralizes Israelis. Seeing visitors to Israel, especially in times of conflict, warms the hearts of the natives. It lets them know they are not alone and that we are one people with different addresses.
You cannot un-ring a bell. The FAA decision happened. It should not have. This is not only my assessment but also the assessment of many politicians and countless security officials who have the perspective from both the aisle and window, if you will. So, how do we move forward?
I suggest a simple formula: Book your flight, get on the plane, and head home to Israel. Now more than ever. It is safer than the media depicts (I was just there and am speaking first-hand). Also, encourage your friends to invest in Israeli companies now more than ever.
The State of Israel means Jews can never be denied entry again. Let’s ensure that this colossal blunder by the FAA is a blip on the radar and indeed, doesn’t happen again.