Speech Delivered for Israel Independence Day 2013

It has been 45 years now since I set foot in Israel and in Jerusalem. I first arrived here in 1967 to cover the 6 Day War for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. So I have seen a lot.


Tonight I’ve been asked to share some of my experiences and impressions over these years.


I am somewhat leery. Whenever I speak at a Jewish venue, I’m usually asked “Are you right or left? Our congregation is split…so I have to know if I need to balance what you have to say with another speaker.”


In other words, the implication is that the substance of my talk is less important than which political camp I support.


Nothing like being made to feel welcome. I then know, from the outset, that half the audience, no matter what, is going to hate me.


One thing I have learned over the years is that, in Israel, everything is politics.  But, what is right or left about trying to make the point that, in this city, there are more folks paid to guard the parking meters that steal our money than there are cops to protect us from theft?


Parking meters are a classic example of grand theft. Our taxes had already paid for the parking space or the roadway before the meter was installed.


Did you know that when I first came here, there were no parking meters. One great feature of the city, now remembered only by old fogies like myself, was that because most people used the buses, you could easily find parking anywhere—even on places like Shamai St.


Another great thing about the good old days was that parking wardens hadn’t even been invented yet. Responsibility for giving out tickets, if they were given out at all, rested with the police. All the beat cops—and, yes there were real beat cops in those days—wore a pouch to hold the ticket forms—just where they wear a gun today. Most policemen were unarmed—just like the British Bobbies. And most went to work using the busses, just like everybody else… so they could sympathize with the problems of the average Yoske.


Jerusalem in those days was a special city to live in.

You see, it wasn’t so much a city as an overgrown small town that would have been even smaller had it not been for the fact that it housed a university and was the seat of the country’s government. The city shut down at 10:00 at night, and the last bus disappeared off the streets at 10:30.


One of the things that made Jerusalem such a pleasant place at that time was that most of its citizens were mild-mannered. Each seemed to believe that God was on his or her side, so there was no reason to pick a fight with anyone else.  Unfortunately, today, most folks here still believe that God is on their side. But now they are convinced that that is the best reason of all for picking a fight.


For those of you who don’t drive, I should point out that there is also a third breed of Jerusalem morph—those who believe that God is on their side, so they can ignore all the traffic rules. Ever try driving in Givat Shaul? Don’t….especially if you’re not suicide prone.


In the old days, there were certain courtesies that were simply never ignored, but have now disappeared. For example, unless you wanted to be the subject of a supremely-well-articulated curse that promised that you would be sent to the far reaches of some very uncomfortable place because God was on the side of the curser, you never telephoned anyone between the hours of two and four. Those were holy sleeping hours, known popularly as “the schlofshtunden.”


The thing is, though, that it was highly unlikely that you would sin in such a way anyways because it was highly unlikely that you would have a phone to make such a call—or that the person you would have wanted to call would have a phone either. Phones were considered to be luxury items—like baking ovens. They were distributed based on a set of priorities enumerated by government fiat, and published in full on the first page of the phone book just so that the bureaucracy could remind you where you stood in the country’s social order.


The most important criterion for getting a phone, though, wasn’t printed in that list. It was called “Vitamin P,” short for proteksia—and it was the most important medicament for anything you suffered from from the bureaucracy.


Unless you could trace your lineage back to Machiavelli, vitamin P was always in short supply. If you couldn’t get some, even on the black market, you might have to wait as long as 12 years for a telephone party line to become available. And of course that was not necessarily a blessing because you could also end up sharing the line with someone who was so enthralled with finally having gotten a phone after so many years that they couldn’t stop talking into it. So you ended up paying for the privilege of having a phone. But it was really only a piece of decoration and something to boast about to your friends because you couldn’t actually use it.


The lack of phones had led to a very common custom in the city. If you wanted to go and see someone, you were never required to phone in advance. You simply hopped over.

And if someone suddenly appeared on your doorstep just after you had had a raging fight with your husband or wife, (or the baby had just finished five hour crying session) you had little choice but to grit your teeth, apologize for the mess in the living room, and be all smiles as you asked whether these folks wanted tea or coffee.


Another marvelous custom was that, if you were a stranger in town, you need not have worried about being lonely. Just as on weekdays, 2 to 4 was the time of the schlofshtunden, on Saturdays, it was the time of open house, with the samovar lit and the dining table full of cakes. Most of the people who lived in Rehavia and Talbieh would use that time to hold open house. And since most of the people who lived in Rehavia or Talbieh either worked at the university and knew everybody who was worth knowing, or worked in government and was therefore worth knowing in his or her own right, open house was also a time for dosing up on Vitamin P.


Jerusalem, in those days, was a surprisingly pluralistic place. The people who really ran the show in the city were the Yekkes, or German Jews who had come in the 1930s and often spoke English better than they did Hebrew. To cater to their needs and the needs of other people of central European origin, the city, at time, had 4 excellent Jewish pork butchers. And, when the old city was captured, there was still enough business left over to provide the Christian pork butcher in the Christian quarter with additional business.


By the way, all the best restaurants in the city were also treif. The first decent kosher restaurant was only opened up in the late 1970s…by an Australian goy who had come to manage the Plaza hotel and couldn’t figure out why the Jews had ignored such a great money-making venture as feeding tasty kosher food to Jews.


Another thing that may come as a surprise to you is that, in those days, most of the Haredim in the city worked. And so the standard of living here was about equal to that of Tel Aviv. Not only that, those Haredim who worked added a lot to the general atmosphere in the city. For example, I found it quite amazing that after the old city was captured in 1967, the first group of Jews to cross the old armistice lines to try to make contact with the Arabs on the other side were the Haredim who had lived in the city before 1948. Unlike the young Israelis who knew no Arabic, these Yiddish-speakers, who worked for a living and who had had to have business and friendly contacts with the Arabs, were often fluent in Arabic too. That they were never exploited to bind the city’s residents closer together is one of the biggest, most wasted political opportunities of recent times.


By the way, the following Pesah I saw a mirror image scene on the part of older Palestinians who had lived in Jerusalem prior to 1948. Totally unafraid, lines of them would trek into the new city to buy as many 21/2 kilo packages of matzah as they could carry on their shoulders or backs. Believe it or not, throughout the Middle East, Arabs who had lived in cities with sizable Jewish populations had always looked forward to Pesah. Even though Jews view it as the bread of all afflictions—especially constipation—Matzah is considered by most Arabs to be a special gastronomic treat.  The fact that a secular, socialist Jewish government had been installed in West Jerusalem, brought with it an extra special treat. In those days, matzah was subsidized.


But it wasn’t long before the bad times arrived. The first terrorist bombs began to explode in the city in 1968. The problem was that the city’s 3 part-time bomb disposal experts, (who were also only partly expert at their jobs) had to get to the site of the bomb using the bus too. It took years before a van was budgeted for them.


Jerusalem’s great fortune was that the Arabs were as amateurish at setting off bombs as the Jews were in preventing them.


For example, one of the first such bombs to be brought into the new city was a fridge, stuffed with explosives, that was deposited on the sidewalk of Ben Yehuda Street. Discovering it didn’t take a lot of brains. After all, a full fridge plunked down on the sidewalk of a main street on a boiling hot day should attract some interest—if only because it wasn’t plugged into any outlet. I have always feared that if a “for sale” sign had been posted on it, though, it would probably been ignored because then it would have looked too normal.


Living in Jerusalem has always required a special mindset. In most places in the world, there is always a huge debate on whether events are correlative or causative. In other words whether one event causes another to take place or whether two events just happen to take place at the same time.


In Jerusalem, though, there is a mindset called the Jerusalem Syndrome. It posits that every event is the product of God’s Great Plan. In its most extreme form, those afflicted by the syndrome can come to believe that they are the mouthpiece of God or even the messiah. According to Health Ministry statistics, about 360 people catch that very severe version of the disease each year.


It is quite easy to catch the disease—at least in a form that doesn’t require hospitalization. There are two very common symptoms of the weak form. Each, on its own, is not too serious. But, you should still watch out. If you catch both symptoms, you are liable to face a fate worse than death because then you are likely to be enticed into becoming an Israeli politician.


One symptom is the product of a great temptation. As Menachem Begin once put it, when a person in Jerusalem wants to speak to God personally, his phone (if he has one) is billed only for a local call. In this version of the disease, God becomes your all-knowing buddy because, no matter what happens, everyone then counsels you to talk to Him directly. For example, if you have got a pothole in front of your house, and you call the city to get it repaired, and the city, as usual, fails to do so, you call your elected representative to complain. When you then have the gall to ask the representative when the repair will take place, you actually believe him when he replies:  “God only knows.”


The other main symptom of the Jerusalem Syndrome is what I have come to call “Pontificate on Pilot.” Once you contract it, your jaws go on auto pilot.


You may not have noticed it but almost everyone in Israel, and especially anyone, and especially anyone who has visited the Knesset, suffers from that particular version of the disease. And gender makes no difference. Once he or she is infected, he or she comes to believe that he or she is always speaking Gods own truth. This then means that he or she becomes that he or she is a better speaker than anyone else.


Because this condition is so widespread, the basic rule of rhetoric here has become this: everyone should always try top talk louder than anyone else, faster than anyone else, and prevent any potential debating partner from talking at all. The premise is that if the other guy can’t talk, then you will win the debate by default.


When they tried to bring Muzak here, the entrepreneurs flopped. Normal Israeli voices would always drown it out.


Journalists here, of course, understand the Israeli rules of rhetoric only two well. That is the reason why, if you have noticed, their questions on television are often longer than the answer they expect to elicit. It also explains why they rarely let their interviewee complete a whole sentence, before interjecting something. The impression given is that the interviewee has been invited to be questioned, not to elicit information, but to make the interviewer look important.


For example, without fail, every time I’m asked to appear on television here, the person who welcomes me (if you can use the term) at the studio, at some point whispers to me so loudly that everyone in the building can hear “We actually wanted Tom Friedman or Bill Clinton. But they were both busy. We tried everybody else we could think of, but, in the end, we had to settle for you.


Nice to feel needed and wanted…isn’t it?


And Jews abroad ask why Israel has such a Hasbara problem.


Israel’s problems with the rest of the world actually begin at a much earlier stage. Israelis call themselves Sabras, because they think that they are prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. I think they are more like rubber bands. They are smooth. They can’t be shaped into anything recognizable to anyone else. Most say things that are totally tasteless. But if their words are taken with even with just a grain off salt, they are totally indigestible.


What makes Israelis that way? Well, I have come to one basic conclusion after living here all these years. Israelis have little to fear from the Arabs. Israeli citizens are pretty good at fighting wars. Their deadly enemies are their own politicians; and so all Israeli patriots’ behaviour patterns are directed at saving themselves from their representatives whom they freely elect time and time again.


I collect statistics in much the same way other hobbyists collect stamps or coins or hotel towels. My favourite statistic about this country comes from the annual survey conducted by the Sderot Conference. Every year, the conference conducts a poll and asks ten basic questions. And each year, one of the questions gets the same answer. The question is: Do you trust the political party you have just voted for or are about to vote for? And every year, the answer is the same. Only 7 percent of Israelis trust the party they have just voted for or are about to vote for.


I suspect that that 7 percent that is trusting is also the percentage of people in the country that suffers from dementia.


In addition to having contracted a severe version of the Jerusalem Syndrome, maybe, one reason why Israeli politicians score so low in the public’s ladder of esteem is that they simply don’t have the words to describe what is going on around them. If that is so, I can actually sympathize with them. When I try to talk politics using Hebrew, I too find that I simply can’t express myself as I can in English.


I don’t know whether any of you have ever noticed it, but there are lots of words in other languages that simply don’t exist in Hebrew—and that is deliberate. Two good examples of words missing from the holy tongue are: “mainstream” and “accountability.”


I assume that the word “mainstream” is never used because no one here expects anyone to agree with anybody else about anything. By definition in order to have a mainstream, you need at least two people to agree on something.


Accountability is what you have left over when no one takes responsibility for the way things turn out. You see, you can’t even invent a word like accountability, when there is no one around who can even imagine taking responsibility for that.


You can see the evidence for this phenomenon on all the nightly newscasts. There is always a crush in front of the television cameras as people jostle to take credit for anything that goes right—even if somebody else did it.


But if there has been a snafu, everyone involved seems to be abroad on a trip—paid, of course from the public purse. I have yet to see an Israeli politician or bureaucrat take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.


I once called up the Hebrew Language Academy, which is charged with inventing new Hebrew words, and asked them why the distinguished folks there had never gotten around to creating Hebrew equivalents for the words that are necessary for good government that are common in other languages, but are absent in Hebrew. Their answer was “nobody ever asked us.” I’m sure that that response has a deep, philosophical meaning. I’m just not sure what it is.


As you may have gathered, after all my years here, I really do have problems figuring out what Israeli politicians have on their minds—or whether they have minds at all.


Maybe one reason why that is so is because Israelis, as a group, have an extraordinary capacity for improvisation that usually allows them to extricate themselves from the messes the country’s politicians create.


I’ll give you but one example of a mess for which Israelis haven’t yet been able to find an improvised solution.


One of the most joyous, improvised events that I ever attended in this country took place a couple of weeks after I arrived. It was Shavuoth. The army had spent the previous two weeks demolishing and clearing a bunch of homes and small shops in the newly-liberated old city; and the government as part of the Shavuoth celebrations, had decided to allow people to enter the old city for the first time. Of course nothing was planned out in advance. And so the results were truly beyond any single person’s control.


Entrance to the old city was via what was then called “The Pope’s Road.” That was a great idea because the road, which had been built and paved in 1964 as part of the preparations for Pope Paul VI’s visit to the city, was actually brand new. It had been used only once—so that the Pope could cross the buffer zone in the city and reach the Dormition Abbey and the old city’s Zion’s Gate when coming from the Israeli side. No one had used it since. Now the spending of all that taxpayer money could be justified.


I can vividly recall that the day was brutally hot and dusty. Nobody knew what to expect. Naturally, there were no signs and so it was easy to miss the entry point into the old city itself at the Dung Gate. Once I got there, I can only say that what I saw was a disappointment. There was this flat area that was hard to walk on because of the rubble. All the hikers had kicked up the dust, so that it settled on all the other pilgrims like a light, beige talc. That dust was one reason why it was also hard to distinguish between secular, religious or Haredi women. Everyone looked the same; and everyone needed to wear a shmatte on his or her head to cope with the sun and dust.


To tell the difference between the religious or non-religious at this, the holiest of Judaism’s shrines, you had to look really carefully.


This was the time of the sexual revolution. So secular women wore miniskirts, supporters of the National religious party wore skirts down to their knees, and most Haredi women, wore their skirts at half calf length. Extremism in clothing had not yet caught on here, except among the wild-eyed Eida Haredit supporters who shaved their heads; and the denim maxi skirt that has now become a de rigeur uniform in modern orthodox areas of the city hadn’t yet been invented.


Just to the right of this plaza was the spot we had all come to see–a big flat wall made up of huge stones. Women and men, young and the elderly all crowded and jostled with each other to pray and slip bits of paper into the cracks in the wall. Nobody had even thought of putting up a “mechitsa” in front of the Western Wall.


This site had instantly become the “people’s place.” The atmosphere was such that it was hard to tell whether that was because the site belonged to the people who had come to reclaim it, or the wall had special powers that enabled it to reach out magically to reclaim the people who had been away for so many years.


But as was to happen so often in the years to come, the government of the time couldn’t figure out what to do. It had a choice: to declare the area a religious site, under the supervision of the Religious Affairs Ministry or to label it as a national heritage site under the supervision of the National Parks Authority or the Tourist Ministry.


Naturally, it decided to do neither. And so, slowly, responsibility for order at the site was taken over by the rabbinate. Today, the self-felt need by the Women at the Wall to wrest back at least some rights that were available to anyone on the first day that the wall had once again become accessible to Jews could have been prevented with just a bit of foresight.


Parenthetically, I should remind you that the complaints about women praying out loud in an open public venue or singing in public, is actually also a relatively new phenomenon.


In the early 1980s, the ultra-Orthodox had been invited to join the government for the first time. Almost immediately, welfare payments to Yeshiva Bochers, Kollel students, and children of large families had increased by leaps and bounds. As a result, more Haredim began having more children.


Also, at about that time, another, special historical event was taking place at the determinedly secular Kibbutz Shamir in the Galil. The kibbutz opened a factory to make what it called Tafnukim—Israel’s own disposable diapers. Although disposable diapers had been on sale in America for many years, their leading manufacturers, Proctor and Gamble and Kimberly Clark hadn’t brought them to Israel because of the Arab boycott.


How boycotting disposable diapers was supposed to aid the Arab cause has always been beyond me. But, then again, unlike so many foreign would-be peace mediators, I didn’t come to this region searching for logical reasons for anything that happens here.


Be that as it may, one of the biggest changes that took place at that time in Israeli society was that the Haredim began to complain more and more, and more and more openly about having to hear women’s voices in public. Again, I don’t want to suggest that God was not directing events, but it seems to me that this distaste for hearing women’s voices came about just as the number of tafnukim that were being deposited in garbage bags was growing geometrically; and women’s voices rose to the occasion with the call “Haim, it’s your turn to take out the garbage”.


Now, I don’t want to blame the Hashomer HaTsair kibbuzniks, but it was at that moment that all the men’s voices in Mea Shearim seemed to rise as one to declare: “I can’t stand hearing women’s voices any more; it’s time to go to the kollel,” which, among Israeli Haredim, has also become their equivalent of an English gentlemen’s club.


Isn’t it interesting that everywhere in the world, men claim to be stronger and smarter than women, but always seek out a place to hide from women and find a fancy name for it?


There is so much more to say about Jerusalem, our home town. But my time is up because the moment has come to join in that great national celebration—the lighting of the mangal. Just the term, lighting the mangal sounds so spiritual and other-worldly, like lighting the Hannukia.


Actually there is a truly strange history to this popular ceremony. In all the 3800 years of Jewish history, there is no precise precedent for it.


As you may know, most modern Israeli holidays, such as Rosh Hashana, originated before the destruction of the Second Temple, or as was the case with the Kibbutz movement’s celebration of Shavuoth, they began during the pre-state period.

The thing is that you couldn’t celebrate Independence Day before there was an Independence Day.


After 1949, the bureaucrats and the political aristocracy, as was their wont, tried to take control of this new holiday, and tried to force folks to celebrate it by dancing the Hora in the streets, as Tel Avivians had done spontaneously after the UN resolution on partition  in 1947.


But ass these social bosses should have known, there is no bigger downer than organizing a spontaneous anything. So, inventive Jews sought a different way. To the horror of the powers that be, a few of them even went sop far as to set up little grills in Zion Square. The cultural commissars decided that things like that just weren’t done in these parts—especially since they reminded the political bosses of the grills that the Arabs set up in the evenings to break the fast during Ramadan.


Outrage became the order of the day.


In 1954, Maariv even went so far as to publish a scathing editorial condemning the lighting of barbecues on Independence Day, for what it called “the rise of Levantinism.” In those days, there was no greater and more hateful epithet in the Hebrew vocabulary than the word “Levantine.”


But Israelis have since made some other Levantinisms such as houmous and falafel their own—and have even falsely spread them around the world as original Israeli goods. So why not make another Moslem custom Jewish too.


The reason why the custom, has spread is that lit mangals can be used to celebrate whatever we want to celebrate. The members of the far right wing Temple Mount faithful take it as needed practice for the day when animal sacrifices will return to the Temple Mount. Thousands of graduates of anti-Zionist kollels, thank God for this festivity. Most are otherwise be unemployable. But in the weeks leading up to this day, they can find seasonal work supervising the slaughter of the thousands of cows and tens of thousands of chickens that will placed on the fires.


And even left-wingers have a reason to rejoice. After all, there is no better example of equity and equality than those celebrants who end up smelling equally badly from the acrid smoke.



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