Where Senility Is No Barrier to High Office

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published September 17, 2007, issue of September 21, 2007.
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The news from Israel has a surreal quality these days, half farcical, half simply bizarre. Last week, Christian crosses and the words “Hitler is the messiah, long live Jesus” were spray-painted on the walls of the Pahad Yitzhak synagogue in Eilat and on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, swastikas were painted on the walls of a synagogue in Dimona.

It turns out there are gangs of neo-Nazi youth in the country. A gang of eight from Petach Tikvah was arrested this week for allegedly perpetrating hate crimes against Asians (“guest workers”), religious Jews, drug addicts and homosexuals. The gang appears to be Russian, which, of course, has led many people to presume its members are among the many Russians who’ve come to Israel with only the sketchiest Jewish credentials.

That’s a story that will one day be told, the story of how Israel lowered the bar to enable a huge immigration from the former Soviet Union and did so in some (perhaps large) part as a response to the “demographic challenge,” wanting to ensure that the proportion of Arabs in its population, about 20%, would not increase. The result is a cohort of which as many as 40% do not identify as Jews; many of these feel alienated from Israeli society and some act out their alienation in violence and vandalism.

The story is filled with ironies, not the least of which is that now that economic conditions in the former Soviet Union are improving, some of the better educated Russians are reversing course and returning from Israel, leaving Israel with a more problematic compote.

Then we have Madonna in Israel for a Rosh Hashanah Kabbalah trip. Go figure. (One wonders whether President Shimon Peres regarded her private visit with him as a perk of office or a burden.)

And what of the Israeli raid over Syria, the mysterious raid which either was successful or was not, which either targeted arms destined for Hezbollah or nuclear material delivered by North Korea, which jettisoned its fuel tanks (over Turkey) because it had used more fuel than intended in evading Syrian radar or penetrated deep into Syria before being spotted, which included a ground unit or did not, and which will lead to Syrian reprisals of some sort or won’t?

And then we have the Israeli consulate in New York approaching Maxim, the “men’s magazine,” to feature a spread on former Israeli female soldiers dressed in — well, very little. Maxim says that it was approached by the consulate “to be a part of reshaping Israel’s public image.”

The rationale? According to one adviser to the consulate, speaking to AP, “Males that age [18-35] have no feeling toward Israel one way or another, and we view that as a problem, so we came up with an idea that would be appealing to them.”

This is presumably part of a “rebranding” campaign in which Israel is seeking to be seen as an advanced Western nation — pharmaceuticals and computers, nightclubs and bikini beaches. Whether this kind of pimping for Israel comports with the Zionist dream is evidently thought an anachronistic question, a throwback to the Age of Ideology, z”l. Now it is time for serious PR, and that requires a flesh approach.

But what if Spain or Bulgaria comes up with even comelier models? And what of 18-35 Jewish females? How shall Israel appeal to them?

Somehow, though some fine Jewish women of my acquaintance tell me I’m mistaken, the notion of bare-torsoed males brandishing Uzis doesn’t quite do it. My suggestion? Back to basics: a gallery of consumptive poets and winsome shepherds.

I doubt the consulate will accept that suggestion; they will instead turn again to the hucksters who respect neither men nor women. As they put it, their purpose is “first and foremost [to] demonstrate to the world that Israel is not just a land of conflict.”

The trouble with campaigns that focus on “image” is that they keep bumping into reality, and reality is always more complex. Israel has, indeed, pharmaceuticals and computers, nightclubs and bikini beaches, but these are not all it has. It has neo-Nazis and hoodlums, it has enemies and cluster bombs, it has a yawning income gap and willing ex-soldier women and much, much more — much that is inspiring, much that is fun, much that is beautiful and much that is tawdry.

That, in a roundabout way, brings us to reliable Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former chief rabbi of the Sephardic community and long-time spiritual leader of the Shas party, who, commenting the other day on last year’s war in Lebanon, proposed that “It is no wonder that soldiers are killed in war; they don’t observe Shabbat, don’t observe the Torah, don’t pray every day, don’t lay phylacteries on a daily basis — so is it any wonder that they are killed? No, it’s not… When soldiers believe and pray, God helps them during the war. [These soldiers] don’t get killed.”

No great surprise here: After all, Yosef blames Katrina on President Bush’s endorsement of the Gaza disengagement plan and on his belief that the victims of Katrina “have no God.” That was also the source of the tsunami: “There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study…. Black people reside there. Blacks will study the Torah? [God said:] Let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.”

Perhaps the octogenarian Yosef offers a new element in Israel’s marketing campaign, providing picturesque evidence of how senility in Israel is no barrier to high office. Why limit the rebranding campaign to the 18-35 generation? Go for all those who are totally out of touch.

May you and all those you hold close be sealed for a good year, a year of health, prosperity, courage, grace and love.

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