Richard Branson’s press pack adored Israel, with good reason

Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson touches down at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel with CEO Shai Weiss.   (Via Jewish News)
Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson touches down at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel with CEO Shai Weiss. (Via Jewish News)

Journalists, on the whole, are a cynical bunch. Often quoted, but never bettered, are the 1930 lines by writer Humbert Wolfe, who was said to be immensely proud of his Jewish heritage despite converting to Christianity. Wolfe wrote: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist/thank God! the British journalist./But, seeing what the man will do/unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

Wolfe’s pithy summing-up of the British press has stayed good for nearly 90 years and I was privileged to see the pack in action last week, when Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic scooped up 40 assorted journalists, bloggers, “influencers” and just plain hacks to celebrate the first flights between London and Tel Aviv.

Branson, as everybody knows, loves a party, and Tel Aviv was undoubtedly turned into party central last Thursday night. Virgin Atlantic took over a huge nightclub at the city’s port complex, into which flooded le tout Tel Aviv, headed by SpoonBender-in-Chief Uri Geller and the delicious Israeli actor Michael Aloni, most recently featured in Jewish News’ very own Life magazine.

Aloni, for you fashion freaks, was decked out in a jacket deliberately full of holes, which must have cost a fortune and which would have looked, on lesser mortals, as though the moths had had a feast day. On him, however, damn he looked cool.

It has to be admitted that Mr G and Mr A were the only celebrities whom I recognised, although there were certainly a fair few more. Virgin had helpfully erected posing stages all over the gigantic premises, where those who were famous and a fair few wannabes were able to pout and pirouette while clutching at vodka-soaked straws or take selfies.

One of the stages even had a revolving turntable, so you didn’t even need to bother altering your profile to show your best side.

This being Israel, the entire three days of our trip were notable for food, food, and more food. And the hacks being British, an almost equal amount of drink, drink and more drink was consumed.

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But the copious catering certainly astonished most of the press, many of whom were either first-time visitors to Israel or – like one journalist – had not visited for 34 years since staying on kibbutz as a young man.

We were taken to lunch at a restaurant in the old Jaffa train station where the food just kept coming, plateful after lavish plateful, until even the greediest of guests gave up and cried defeat. Those Jews among our number understood the compulsion to cater for the ravening hordes: after all, isn’t our mantra about Jewish festivals “they tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat”?

I’m not sure if it was the food, the drink or even the accommodation at two of Israel’s most luxurious hotels, Tel Aviv’s Royal Beach and Jerusalem’s David Citadel. But I was somewhat struck by the attitude of the massed ranks of British journalists, most of whom I might have suspected to be at the distrustful boycott end of the spectrum when it comes to Israel.

Instead, to my great but glad amazement, people were practically rolling over to have their (by now extended) tummies tickled when it came to talking about Israel. “I absolutely love it here,” one reporter confided to me (well, I say confided, but he was telling everyone). He said he had never felt so comfortable in a place in his life and couldn’t wait to return.

While I might secretly wonder if Branson and his Israeli chief exec, Shai Weiss, had paid off the whole of Israel to behave nicely for a few days, I know that’s not the real reason the hacks fell in love. The shocking truth is that Israel, on the whole, is a good place, and no need to bribe the British journalist to say so. (Although a lot of vodka also helps.)

About the Author
Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist.