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May 14, 2008

Israel at Sixty


by Ran HaCohen

Christians the ancient self-designated heirs to the Jews commemorate Christ's tormented way to resurrection and redemption in the weeks leading to Easter. Zionists the modern self-designated heirs to the Jews have their Lent after Passover, commemorating what they construct as their via dolorosa leading to the "Jewish State." In the weeks following Pesach the country indulges in a nationalistic orgy, hardly imaginable in any other modern state, reminiscent of a primitive tribe. If you want to understand how a whole nation is led to defy its own interests, to follow a corrupt, de facto military leadership wasting the nation's fortune and blood on unnecessary wars and immoral occupation for decades, pay a visit to Israel shortly after Pesach.

A couple of decades ago, it all started with the Holocaust Remembrance Day, about a week after Passover (all Israeli public holidays follow the Jewish calendar, which is otherwise used only for religious purposes). This is no longer the case: the weeks before that are an ever more popular time for Jewish pilgrimage to Poland, where Israeli teenagers, a year or two before their military service, are taken to a series of concentration camps, destroyed Jewish communities, and other sites of memory. These journeys at least eight days long earn the blessing of the state and are regulated by the Ministry of Education: an official goal is "to boost national feelings." The ministry also demands that all the young pilgrims, even the secular ones, consume only kosher food flown from Israel and served soaked and lukewarm in Polish hostels. Parents, however, have to pay the entire costs themselves, about $1,500 per child, which makes it a privilege of the middle class and above. This makes sense, of course. The middle class has to be persuaded ideologically; the obedience of the poor is secured by more violent means.

I happened to be at the airport when a group returned from such a journey last April: scores of their schoolmates were taken to the terminal to greet them, drumming, dancing, and yelling "the People of Israel live." One had the impression they were welcoming a group of Holocaust survivors.

The real Holocaust survivors, by the way, do not earn that much attention, nor public investment: out of 80,000 survivors still alive in Israel, one third live in poverty. Some of those elderly people even emigrate back to Germany, where financial aid to survivors is much more generous a march of the living.

The Hajj

The climax is the March of the Living, also called the March of Remembrance and Hope: the dire past stands for Remembrance whereas Israel, ironically, stands for Hope. It has a double highlight, in Auschwitz at the Holocaust Remembrance Day, and then in Israel at Independence Day. The person behind the concept is Avraham Hirschson, a politician who reached the position of minister of finance and is now facing an indictment with a string of crimes including breach of trust, aggravated fraud, theft, forgery of corporate documents, and money laundering. This year, the key speaker in the March of the Living was Israel's chief of staff, who used the opportunity to once again, at Auschwitz, incite violence against Iran with an idiotic analogy to Nazi Germany. The millions massacred there remained silent in spite of this demagogic abuse of their suffering. It's amazing how the Israeli army managed to turn itself into a dominant player perhaps the most dominant player not only in Israel's politics, education, and economy, but even in the memory of the Holocaust, which had nothing whatsoever do to with a military force created on another continent three years after it was over.

The March of the Living then proceeds to Israel, where it ends a week later at the Siamese twins: Memorial Day (for fallen soldiers) and Independence Day, successively. The ideological messages are built in: the alternative to Auschwitz is to live and die (and kill) for Israel. "They" wanted to kill us in Auschwitz just as "they" want to kill us in Israel; "they," the goyim (gentiles), hate us everywhere, and we are always innocent victims. Arabs and Nazis are all the same. It's not the occupation, not Israel's refusal to make peace, not even a particular political setting that can be rationally analyzed: it's eternal, unchanging anti-Semitism. It's live or let live. Doubting Israel's righteousness is like doubting the Holocaust. Criticizing Israel is supporting the Nazis. Much like the hate-mail I get.

The Streets of Tel Aviv

On the evening of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and again on Memorial Day a week later, the streets of Tel Aviv look as if they're under curfew. From dusk to dawn, not a single shop is open. This law is enforced and respected throughout the country. In the very Tel Aviv where so many shops are open on Saturday (in spite of the law), where supermarkets are proud of serving customers on a 24/7 basis, where just two weeks earlier, during Passover, bread (which the law forbids to be displayed publicly) is baked, displayed, sold, and eaten everywhere, you won't find a single kiosk open on these state holidays. Religion is a fossilized, backward pastime for medieval Jerusalemites; we in Tel Aviv are modern, Western, and secular until it comes to nationalism, where no ultra-orthodox can beat our devotion. Furthermore, it's our pastime to rebuke the ultra-orthodox who refuse to stand still during the two-minute siren heard all over the country, like a muezzin calling for prayer. A columnist of ultra-orthodox background who cautiously dared to cast doubts about this tribal custom in Ha'aretz lured almost 500 responses, more than the other four daily columns combined, most of them furious. And you won't find the column in the English edition.

There's hardly a house without a flag; most cars have one or two as well. Hundreds of thousands of flags are attached to the weekend's newspapers thanks to a certain bank that uses it to advertise. A friend of mine who does not put a flag on her balcony finds one, year after year, pushed there by her patriotic neighbors' balcony; after all, a flagless flat gives a bad reputation to the whole building. The nylon flags will stay there for weeks after the orgy ends, as a shabby reminder.

Display of Hubris

The public ceremonies are aired live on all public TV channels; the only difference is the angle of the camera. For more than two weeks, there's little else in the media than pure indoctrination: Holocaust, war stories, the glory of the state. A march of politicians on screen, airing empty slogans about Israel's "uniqueness." What else can they offer us?

As I am writing this column, military jets are flying above my head for the Independence Day airborne display. It's the army again then, you never get enough of it. The noise is unbearable, and there's no escape. I cannot help thinking of the people in Gaza, who are regularly exposed to much more deafening noises by the same jets.

The airborne display has just ended; a paratrooper mistakenly parachuted into the stands where spectators were seated, injuring eight. In days immersed in artificially produced symbolism, one wonders what this accident stands for. The fall of Icarus?

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Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and his PhD is in Jewish Studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.

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