My Word: The signs and the songs

The country’s growing financial problems also continue to make headlines. Here, the writing on the wall should read: Mind the growing gap.

May 23, 2013 22:35
A SIGN of the times on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road this week.

A S Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road370. (photo credit: Liat Collins)

The words were so familiar it took a second for me to realize just how out of place they were. “Mind the gap,” read the white lettering at the station. But this was not the iconic warning of London’s Underground; the slogan ran alongside a light rail stop on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road.

At first I thought it might be a joke – a kind of sophisticated graffiti so much pleasanter than the messages spray painted in the stairwell of Women of the Wall board member Peggy Cidor this week.

But it turns out that there was a different point behind the humor.

Two students from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design had carefully set down the letters as part of an installation with the aim of using art to create a disturbance in the public sphere.

Hence the two, Moran Gibson and Maya Zakin, were excited by how excited I was and duly took photos of me taking photos of their work. The result was a blurring of the borders of art imitating life, creating the sort of infinity effect you get when passing between two mirrors.

It was that kind of week. Blurred borders, fun and serious; a week in which the “Mind the gap” caution seemed particularly apt.

I often whistle and sing while I work, leading one former editor to grumpily declare me “disgustingly perky.” This week I whistled and sang “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I – another case of life imitating art, I suppose.

Unlike Anna the English schoolteacher, I wasn’t whistling because I was afraid; it was because I had attended an amateur but accomplished performance of the show, put on by Israel Musicals and JEST (Jerusalem English Speaking Theater).

And that, too, seemed particularly appropriate given the story of the English governess’s experiences “getting to know all about” the King of Siam and the royal household.

As the publicity blurb puts it, “The King and I represents one of the main challenges of humanity – how to relate to and accept those who are different from ‘us.’” Unfortunately, while on stage there was an attraction of opposites between the king and the person he declared “a very difficult woman,” in real life there was an ongoing culture clash.

Much of it focused on the friction between the Women of the Wall and the ultra-Orthodox, a battle now being fought as much in cyber space and on the pages of The New York Times and other foreign media as at the Kotel itself.

“It’s a puzzlement,” as the King of Siam might have said, or as Oscar Hammerstein put it so successfully to the music of Richard Rodgers:

When I was a boy
World was better spot.
What was so was so,
What was not was not.
Now I am a man;
World have changed a lot.
Some things nearly so,
Others nearly not.

“WHICH SIDE do you support?” asked a reader recently, inadvertently summing up precisely my dilemma. It has become a matter of “sides” and a “battle” – and I don’t think there can be any victors in this war. Progress is a positive process – slower but less violent than revolutions; it comes from within, through education, not fighting.

If this is about civil liberties, the Western Wall, a sacred site, should not be the venue for it. The courts and the Knesset are the proper forum.

Every time the rhetoric includes mention of the American civil rights campaign, I feel the story is becoming more and more distorted, like those multiple mirror images that no longer portray a clear picture.

Readers abroad, or outside Jerusalem, might be forgiven for thinking that all Israeli women have been banished from the public sphere in the capital, forced to sit at the back of its buses, and victimized for doing anything resembling equality.

It’s an image which helps raise funds but is good for nothing else.

Or almost nothing else: It does encourage some women MKs from Meretz and Labor to arrive for Rosh Hodesh prayers. This could almost be taken as a sign of the miraculous, for these are not women who usually attend religious services, or at least services without media coverage.

Unfortunately, I suspect the chance to strike another blow at the haredim – the other – is too good to miss.

The ultra-Orthodox are also not without blame. Those who hurled abuse and worse at the WOW worshipers are clearly guilty of desecrating the holy site and religion they profess to protect.

The one thing that does not happen at the mass monthly services – on either side – is true prayer. The Rosh Hodesh run-in has become so predictable that for those who truly want to pray without distraction, the Western Wall is the last place they’d go. For all the talk of making the Wall open to everyone, the main effect has been to drive people away and detract from its sanctity.

Similarly, that thousands of haredim can mobilize outside the local IDF recruitment offices, to protest plans to abolish the almost wholesale conscription exemptions, is also curious.

But it is no stranger than the inherent inconsistency in planning to cut the IDF’s budget and the length of mandatory service because of the costs while discussing the mass draft of thousands of recruits – many of whom would need to be paid the higher wages earned by married men and fathers.

There were other puzzlements this week, too.

As the tension increased on the northern border, with Bashar Assad’s forces occasionally firing on Israeli soldiers – to serve his own needs in his civil war – Israel continued with its export of apples grown by Druse residents of the Golan to Syria.

Israeli doctors, meanwhile, are treating Syrian wounded, and earlier this month, as part of the Save a Child’s Heart project, performed cardiac surgery on a four-year-old girl whose family had fled Syria for Jordan.

While the surgeons fought for the life of the girl (whose name cannot be published for fear that she will be harmed by her compatriots), Israel continued to battle the allegations of apartheid. A puzzlement.

The country’s growing financial problems also continue to make headlines. Here, the writing on the wall should read: Mind the growing gap.

There is a built-in perplexity in the national budget proposals. If taxes and the costs of basic services go up, people will, as much as possible, stop spending. This is not the way to help the economy grow. On the contrary.

In an excruciatingly painful incident this week, Israelis – who are used to war and terror – discovered something worse: a lone gunman’s rampage which took the lives of four random victims.

To place the blame for Itamar Alon’s shooting spree at a bank in Beersheba on his economic woes is a form of exploitation. Many, many ordinary citizens struggling to make ends meet are angered at the tycoons who metaphorically make a killing but fail to pay their debts. It doesn’t lead them to murder.

As I wrote last year, Moshe Silman, who self-immolated at a social protest, should not be considered a martyr for killing himself, and Alon should not be considered a victim of the system.

The shoot-out seemed so American, said Israelis.

Just as Americans receive a narrow picture of life in Israel, so our prism of life overseas is similarly distorted.

As the art students Gibson and Zakin discovered, some passersby smiled when they saw something so “foreign” in the center of Jerusalem, others simply stared and didn’t understand what it was doing there.

Mind the gap, indeed. And feel free to join me – wherever you are – in the chorus of “Getting to know you.”

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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