The declaration of the state of Palestine just five days earlier, nearly a year of the intifada, and a paralyzed but uncompromising Israeli politics are the immediate background of the full page El Al advertisement on page 57 of the Sunday New York Times on November 20, 1988. The ad has a rather peculiar content and form, especially given its likely audience — metropolitan New York and surrounds, educated readers across the country, others with a half-Sunday to waste, and the largest Jewish population in the world — people as unlikely as any in the world to have large numbers of children.

The ad shows a photograph on the right of a very pregnant woman: three-quarter to the camera; hands wrapped under her tummy; wearing a long, very conservative dress. Her long hair is bound at the back and she extends to the bottom of the page, which stops just below her knees. Perhaps she is barefoot. On the left half of the page, the copy begins across from her breasts and finishes across from her thighs:

With our new family fares to Israel, your first kid flies for 25 percent off. Your second kid flies for 50 percent off. Your third kid flies for 50 percent off. Your fourth kid flies for 50 percent off. Your fifth kid flies for 50 percent off. Your sixth kid flies for 50 percent off. Some kids, of course, fly free.

Much further down, across from her knees, is the El Al logo and fine print — the usual restrictions apply. [1] The copy, its positioning, the photograph, all inscribe a rather dramatic impression of reproduction.

The context and setting bear on the possibility of a subtext, a reading of the advertisement as a demographic metaphor with particular poignancy for Israel. It is certainly an advertisement erupting with implication.

The Jewish population of Israel (numbering still less than the Jewish population of metropolitan New York) is a matter of great relevance to the Zionist state. The central issue is simply that the Jewish population growth rate (from births and immigration) is well below that of the Palestinians (from births alone and despite emigration). Without dramatic changes, the majority population in the state of Israel (including here the Occupied Territories) will not be Jewish by perhaps the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Israel’s official 1988 Statistical Abstract shows the population (including East Jerusalem but not other Occupied Territories) to be 4.46 million, consisting of 3.65 million Jews and 859,000 Palestinians. The Jewish population grew by 1.5 percent in 1987, compared with over 3 percent for the Palestinians. [2] Israeli officials estimate the Palestinian population of the West Bank at 880,000 and of the Gaza Strip at 600,000. Thus, according to Arnon Sofer, a population specialist at the University of Haifa, the 5.9 million inhabitants of “Western Eretz Israel” are presently only 61 percent Jewish. “What we already have is a binational state,” he concludes, adding that during 1980-1987 the number of Jewish emigrants “canceled out any demographic benefit achieved via immigration.” [3]

Immigration — from all of Europe and the Americas — has slowed to a trickle; the majority of Soviet Jews immigrate not to Israel but to the US. Immigration to Israel from the Middle East is now essentially over. In the past these immigrants had a much higher birth rate than those from Europe but, as Meir Kahane puts it with characteristic subtlety, “the spectacular drop in the Jewish birth rate since 1948 has been almost solely due to the negative Ashkenazic influence on the Sephardic women.” [4] Kahane attributes the “malignant” birth rate among Palestinians to Israeli state largesse — family allowances, freedom from military service (thus not delaying marriage age), and the like. [5]

Certainly the Israeli state encourages immigration and higher birth rates. Incentives for resettlement, housing, employment and family allowances are all extremely generous for Jewish immigrants. Shimon Peres has called on Israeli Jewish parents to have at least four children. At a Labor Party forum in 1977, Peres stated that he did “not want to wake up one morning to discover that Jerusalem is subject to the demographic fate of Galilee” (where “Israeli Arabs” are a majority). [6] But secular motivations, high standards of living and development have also meant liberal abortion laws — as many as 100,000 abortions per year, almost exclusively in the Jewish population. [7]

Population theorists mainly agree that circumstances of insecurity and oppression encourage people to have more children — as fewer survive and children may afford the only means of sustenance, necessary labor and care. The infant mortality rate of Palestinian citizens of Israel is almost double that of Israeli Jews (21 per 1,000 versus 11.6 per 1,000); infant mortality in the West Bank and Gaza is scandalous (27.1 per 1,000 and 38.5 per 1,000, respectively). [8]

The Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories represent only 40 percent of all Palestinians. [9] The more than 3 million Palestinians living elsewhere are probably more solidly linked today than ever before. Many would return in the right circumstances — probably a larger proportion than those of the Jewish diaspora who have immigrated to Israel since 1948. [10]

Given this, how is one to read, to interpret, to assign meaning or significance to the El Al advertisement? El Al is very unlikely to get much response from parents whose seventh child is under two and the six others yet under 12. And certainly not among American Jews, who have one of the lowest birth rates of any American population segment. Perhaps the appeal might be to the ever increasing number of Israeli emigrés — perhaps half a million by now in the US. These families have a higher birth rate than (other) American Jews, and their political allegiances are generally more conservative than the overall American Jewish population. The data suggest they become more hawkish in the US over Middle East issues than they were in Israel. [11] Perhaps they are more amenable to Israeli government policy once they are safely away from its consequences. With relatives and friends in Israel, they are likely to visit. Certainly the ad’s colloquial language suggests an intended audience.

Madison Avenue makes its living on the understanding that a cigar is seldom just a cigar. Reproduction and motherhood are among the most powerful and evocative of appeals possible in human affairs. The ad’s invocation of motherhood/reproduction can certainly be read as a statement of generalized Israeli concern over the ever narrowing population ratio between Israeli Jews and Palestinians — in the context of a policy of annexation vis-à-vis the Occupied Territories. Palestinian citizens of Israel, even with their steeper population growth rates, hardly represent in themselves a demographic threat. Rather, it is Israel’s intentions toward the West Bank and Gaza that lend this advertisement its significance and transparent appeal. We can reasonably doubt that it is meant to promote planeloads of goyim children.


[1] A quick check on November 22, 1988, of other airlines serving Tel Aviv from New York City revealed one could do better on SAS (where all children 2-12 were 50 percent off), and with only two children fares were about the same on Pan Am and TWA. The final sentence is not very clear: Those children who fly free would have to be under two years of age, and occupy the same seat as the required accompanying parent; for anyone to have at least seven children, all under 12, would be a demographic feat in itself, and wholly beyond the woman of the photograph. Of course if the final sentence of the copy refers to the unborn, this woman, with her “kid” who yet “flies free,” is probably unacceptable to any carrier in her advanced state of pregnancy.
[2] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, November 21, 1988.
[3] Haaretz, August 3, 1988. Translation by the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, Tel Aviv.
[4] Rabbi Meir Kahane, They Must Go (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1981), p. 107.
[5] For the record, Israeli law makes it impossible to collect family allowances and other entitlements without national service obligations.
[6] Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, “Israelis as New American Ethnics,” Middle East Report 150 (January-February 1988), p. 39.
[7] Jerusalem Post, March 10, 1978. For a discussion of the abortion issue and the politics of reproduction in Israel, see Nira Yuval-Davis, “Woman/Nation/State,” Radical America 21/6.
[8] Martha Wenger and Steve Niva, “Intifada Index,” Middle East Report 154 (September-October 1988), p. 12.
[9] In 1987, of the total Palestinian population, approximately 24.4 percent were in Jordan, 6.6 percent (337,000) in Lebanon; 5.5 percent (284,000) in Syria; 6.8 percent (352,000) were in Kuwait; 11.2 percent (575,000) in other Arab countries and 3.9 percent (198,000) were elsewhere. See Lisa Hajjar, "The Palestinian Journey, 1952-1987," Middle East Report 146 (May-June 1987), p. 10.
[10] Whereas less than one in five Palestinians today actually live in refugee camps, two thirds of all Palestinians are considered refugees and to live in exile. See Rashid Khalidi, “The Palestinians, Twenty Years After,” Middle East Report 146 (May-June 1987), p. 8. I am also grateful to Sharif Elmusa for discussion of some of these figures.
[11] See Moshe Shokeid, Children of Circumstance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).

How to cite this article:

James Faris "Reading an El Al Ad," Middle East Report 158 (May/June 1989).

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