Fly Palestine: The Holy Land in the Glamorous Age of Flying
August 5, 2016

Even though the Holy Land has drawn pilgrims, artists, traders, and conquerors of every stripe for centuries, the Golden City of Jerusalem still needed the glamor shot of mid-20th-century marketing.

On January 21, 1970, Pan American World Airways embarked on a journey that would forever change air travel. A Boeing 747, christened by U.S. First Lady Pat Nixon just days earlier, made its maiden voyage from New York to London. No airline conveyed the allure of air travel better than U.S.-based Pan Am. Its pilots had the style and confidence that even a Marlborough Man would envy, its all-female flight attendants (then known as stewardesses) epitomized perkiness and conviviality, and their cobalt blue uniforms and stewardess bags were iconic. And Pan Am was exclusive. Air travel was still mainly confined to well-to-do white men (hence the young and attractive stewardesses, who were effectively exposed to sexual harassment).

Leonardo DiCaprio as a Pan Am pilot escorting stewardesses in “Catch Me If You Can.”

Regardless of whether anyone would want the good old Pan Am days back, it is indisputable that the jet-setting airlines of the era did a remarkably good job of advertising. Carriers competed not on prices (a tightly-regulated market meant that there was little price fluctuation) but on presenting the most appealing experience. The airlines knew their audience: businessmen, yes, but also the global (mainly Western) elite flying between New York, London, Paris, and exotic points further afield. If air travel was luxury in the clouds, the marketing posters had to convey nothing less. They were more than mere transportation campaigns, promising to take you wherever you’d want to go; they were destination campaigns marketing an alluring locale:

Pan Am, United et al needed not only to present an attractive on-board experience but to give people who could afford it a reason to travel. An airline, no matter how alluring its stewardesses, is after all a means to an end. Destinations had to be marketed as worth the cost and airlines took on the role of tourism bureaus.

Times have changed In the late 1970s, air travel started to become more affordable for middle-class families, and as the era of mass tourism emerged, airlines moved away from advertising a jet-set lifestyle for the few and rebranded themselves as an economical means of transportation. All this had the effect of making air travel widely available and no longer all that exciting. Where Pan Am had been glamorous and fashionable, the new demands of a middle-class market required assembly-line efficiency that made air travel mundane and banal (the airlines still found a way to make the rich feel special by introducing an on-board class system). Today, airline marketing campaigns are about affordability and reliability, and they tout their global reach without ever mentioning destinations. Even when United uses Rio de Janeiro as a backdrop (below), it fails to identify the locale, which would not be ubiquitously recognized. The locale serves its purpose of being commonplace. It could be any coastline, really. These are generic advertisements targeting a large audience that travels everywhere.

Which brings us to the Holy Land and our continuing Palestine Poster Project series. The Palestine Poster Project Archives, founded by Dan Walsh, is the world’s largest archive of Palestine posters.

This week, Palestine Square looks at how airlines marketed Palestine/Israel between 1930 – 1990. Even though the Holy Land has drawn pilgrims, artists, traders, and conquerors of every stripe for centuries, the Golden City of Jerusalem still needed the glamour shot of mid-20th-century marketing.

In November 1998, the Palestinian Authority (PA) opened an international airport in Gaza amid much pomp in a ceremonial opening attended by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton and PA President Yasser Arafat. The Gaza International Airport was given an international code – GZA – and was home to Palestinian Airlines. It was the era of the “peace process” and a Palestinian airport symbolized hope. A member of the Palestinian Cabinet told the New York Times, “I am standing on Palestinian soil, and I have an airport, I have a flag, I have an airplane. This is our path to the independent Palestinian state.” And one resident of Gaza looked to the day when she’d “go up in the sky like a bird, on Palestinian wings” and exclaimed to the paper, “This is Palestine!”

It was indeed Palestine, albeit still under occupation. From the beginning, Israel looked askance at the project and only relented under pressure from the US, which was keen to see some progress on the ground as the “peace process” stalled. At the time of the opening, donated equipment, including radar and high-tech air-traffic-control devices, was still being held up by Israel due to a dispute with donor nations and the Port Authority of Israel was demanding $650,000 in storage fees before it would release the equipment, even though it was arguably the Israeli state that incurred those fees. In addition, Israel blocked Germany from donating night-landing equipment meaning that GZA could only operate during daylight hours. Furthermore, all passengers, luggage, and aircraft were subject to Israeli oversight, as were travel schedules and routes since Israel maintained total control of air space.

The outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000 dashed any dwindling hopes that the Palestinians would keep that quintessential symbol of modern sovereignty. In 2001, Israel shut down the airport, bombed the control tower and much of the terminal, and sent in bulldozers to tear up the runway. Any future Palestinian airport would need to be opened after the establishment of Palestinian sovereignty, including air space rights. 


Today, Gaza International Airport welcomes sheep rather than passengers. May 6, 2009. (Ahmad Khateib/Getty)

Today, no airline in the world flies to a destination it might call Palestine (although some maverick pilots do). Even Arab carriers do not list Palestine. Only two Arab countries – Egypt and Jordan – have direct flights to Tel Aviv, and TLV – to use its code – is now the only international airport in historic Palestine.

But long before GZA, airlines flew to a land called Palestine. One of the earliest carriers to promote flights there was the Netherlands’ KLM and Air France:

And Israel’s flagship carrier, El Al Airlines, started off as Palestine Airways reflecting the Zionists’ own adoption of the word Palestine (the Jerusalem Post started off as the Palestine Post) before they could rename the land Israel:

(World Zionist Organization)

Once Israel was founded, however, El AI quickly set out to brand the new nation as the next must-see destination, using colorful posters that were often unintentionally ironic and loaded with a historical subtext. Consider this, for example: “You’d hardly recognize the old place” above a graphic chart of sites and activities:

(El Al)

Leaving aside the obvious affront of labeling the internationally-recognized 1967 Occupied Territories as part of Israel (a habit Israel retains), any Palestinian would quickly point out that the “old place” is made up of the former villages depopulated by Zionist forces in 1948 and subsequently razed or handed over to Jewish settlers.

Another El Al poster (right) celebrating Israel’s 1965 Independence Day borrows from a common theme in Zionist poster design depicting Israel as a pioneer nation made up of an agrarian people who till and defend the land: the farmer-warrior motif of Zionist lore.

Note also the promotional poster on the left with its militaristic design elements, including the sharp arrows and eagle wings emblematic of many pre and post-1948 Zionist posters.

One Palestinian, in particular, was in a position to provide flights back to his hometown, Jerusalem. Yousef Beidas was a Jerusalem-born banker who in the 1950s and 60s built a banking and business empire in Beirut, Lebanon, after fleeing Palestine during the Nakba. (His is a fascinating, little-known story that deserves its own article, which Palestine Square plans to publish in the near future.) It was Beidas who founded Middle East Airlines (MEA), Lebanon’s flagship carrier and the region’s most successful airline (ranked the 16th largest worldwide) prior to the country’s 1975-91 Civil War. And until 1967, when Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, MEA offered three flights a day between Jerusalem and Beirut.   


MEA also ran a Paris-Jerusalem route:


Devout Christians traveling to the holy land are also a major source of tourism for Israel and El Al has worked to capture that market as well: 

On the whole, however, El Al sought to depict Israel simply as the new sun-and-surf destination, one that was both Western in appearance and closely bound with the West:


One of the central myths of Zionism – making the desert bloom – was also widely adopted by foreign airlines, particularly this Air France campaign from the late 1940s and early 50s, and a 1971 Swissair campaign that played on the theme of Israel’s redemption of  the land, using vistas  saturated with orange groves (prior to 1948 half of the orange fields were owned by Palestinians): 

As for American airline TWA, Israel was simply heaven on earth:


Given the ongoing occupation and contested claims between Israel and the Palestinians, the reality is that for many travelers flying into TLV, there is no unanimous agreement on whether the land they’re going to is Israel or Palestine. Palestinians in the diaspora, bearing American passports and returning to visit their grandfather’s homes (since then handed to an Israeli family) recognize the obvious reality of Israel’s existence, but for them the land will always be Palestine no matter which flags flies above it. A devout Jewish-American landing in Tel Aviv quickly heads to a West Bank settlement and considers the territory of a would-be Palestinian state dotted by ancient Jewish sites to be the real Israel rather than secular Tel Aviv. And an Arab citizen of Israel flying back home thinks of his village as a part of historic Palestine no matter what her ID says.

In the imagination of many travelers the land is simultaneously Israel and Palestine–something which the Belgian carrier Sabena may already have been signaling in its 1980 campaign: 

By Khelil Bouarrouj.


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