I come to Israel in significant part to escape the news from Israel. Back home in Boston, between the Israeli papers and the many other online sources of information and opinion, the news relentlessly caroms between the scandalous and the unbearable: record poverty, educational decline, political ineptitude, national fatigue, only rarely relieved by a feel-good story that lifts the spirit for a moment.
But here, now, I can experience the country as it is, the more so as this trip begins with a week in my favorite kibbutz among dear friends, far from the maddening and too often madding crowds. Last night’s entirely pleasant crowd was at a small restaurant in Afula that calls itself “The French Place” and specializes in pizza and pasta. (Don’t ask; it’s Israel, where they read from right to left.) I did not see there any signs of fatigue, fear or even consternation furrowed on the brows of the diners.
But it turns out that the news of Israel has followed me to Israel. The country is aghast just now over the murders of two children, an infant (by her father) and a 7-year-old boy (allegedly by two brothers who lived nearby). On the 8 p.m. newscast — that’s the biggie here — I thought for a while I was listening to the 11 p.m. local news back home, the nightly report of murder and mayhem that is a depressing staple of American television. But here it was the national news that was being telecast, and by the time reports of the murders (and interviews with police, relatives, witnesses, neighbors, bystanders and psychologists) were finished, there was time for a weather update and very little else. Likewise, the next morning, in the first five pages of one of the country’s leading newspapers.
So it quickly turns out that good friends and good food and (so far) pleasant weather are not adequate insulation from the daily diet of distress. And that diet includes — how can it not? — the political realm. Just now, it is Israel’s foreign minister who is again making headlines. This Lieberman (Avigdor) makes that Lieberman (Senator Joe) seem reticent. The foreign minister’s latest pronouncement, in a 20-minute talk to 150 Israeli ambassadors brought home for a week of briefings, is that “the era of groveling is over.” As Lieberman sees it, Israel’s ambassadors too often “identify themselves with the other side, to such an extent that they are all the time trying to justify and explain the position of the other side.”
Yet that is, of course, part of the standard brief of an ambassador, whose job it is to represent his nation’s policies to the capital to which he’s been accredited and to interpret that capital’s policies back home. “We must be on good terms and respect the host nations,” Lieberman went on to say, “but we will not tolerate insults and challenges.”
There was no time for back and forth, no time for questions, hence no time to learn what exactly Lieberman meant by saying that Israel would tolerate no challenges. But perhaps he didn’t much care. After all, he opened the conference by asserting that the Palestinian Authority is “a bunch of terrorists” and that there is “no chance of reaching peace for 20 years.” The very next day, in one of those conspicuous contradictions that render Israeli politics indigestible, the prime minister himself addressed the group, and spoke of the imminence of resumed peace negotiations and the need to establish a “demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel.”
Oh, the contradictions. They can be so deliciously ironic. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party has proposed new language for the oath of office Knesset members take. In addition to a commitment to serve Israel faithfully, the proposal is to add, after the word “Israel,” “as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state, in its values and in its symbols.”
The proposal is aimed at Arab Knesset members, who can hardly be expected to declare their loyalty to Zionism. But it seems that the Haredi — fervently Orthodox — members, who are part of Israel’s governing coalition, are as vehemently opposed — and not because of the word “democratic,” but, like the Arab members, because of the word “Zionist.” That’s what they say, in any case, even though democracy is hardly among their favorite things. Then again, it’s not easy to picture Lieberman and the people of his Yisrael Beiteinu party offering themselves as paragons of democratic virtue, save, perhaps, according to the standards of “Animal Farm.”
And: In a recent edition of The Jerusalem Post, the front-page headline told of the plans to raze buildings that violate the new 10-month freeze on some forms of construction in the West Bank. On the same day, Akiva Eldar reported in Haaretz that “despite the freeze, hundreds of housing units are under construction in isolated settlements.” It is possible that the right hand knoweth not what the left hand doeth, but Eldar’s article is more richly and reliably sourced, so it is more likely that the Post report is about rhetoric, while Haaretz is reporting on reality.
So it seems there is no escape. I think that I will search out for dinner an Italian restaurant that serves soufflé au fromage or perhaps mousse de saumon et capres. I will go at eight o’clock, so as to avoid the news.