The trivial is oftentimes a reliable touchstone. Even mundane shopping for an innocuous souvenir of Israel can help diagnose the 58-year-old Jewish state's mental malaise, and account for why its image among the nations is so tarnished.
Time was when finding a memento for a tourist or friend overseas was a snap. You were spoiled for choice. As such items should - by definition - they put Israel's best face forward and exuded affection for the revived land and its revitalized people.
Not any more. Yesteryear's handicrafts are largely gone, replaced by tawdry imports or pretentious copycat tackiness paraded as (and costing like) art.
Hardly any Jewish or Israeli motifs are featured, and unoriginal tokens are shoddily manufactured in China. Religious Judaica isn't suitable for everyone, certainly not for non-Jews.
I decided my safest bet was a pictorial volume - an appealing sample of our sights, sans focuses on the underseam of life and certainly no muckraking. I merely wanted the sort of souvenir easily found in any normal country.
I should have known better.
Luckily my search wasn't prolonged because so little of this genre remains at all available. I quickly homed in on the striking Panoramic Israel, which features unique 360-degree photography. So impressed was I with the concept that I incautiously overlooked the introduction and its author. He's Aviad Kleinberg, Tel Aviv University history professor, politically outspoken commentator and serial signer of far-out left-wing petitions.
To be fair, Kleinberg didn't resort to his customarily acerbic vocabulary in this touristy album. Instead, he struck a tone of pseudo-objectivity about his own country. The absence of sympathy or a compassionate word for it, and the effort to distance himself as far as possible from a Zionist stance, were conspicuous. An unfeeling UN observer could have produced kinder copy.
Kleinberg rattles off long lists of this country's conquerors and we're among them - with no distinction. Jews are weighed on an equal scale with Persians, Greeks and Britons, to name but a few. Jewish claims aren't particularly outstanding, not even regarding Jerusalem. Could a historian omit to stress that Jerusalem was no other nation's capital?
Kleinberg did. He had, however, seen fit to ruminate about (significantly unspecified) "dreamers who cannot bear other people's dreamsâ€¦ until the messianic age arrives and all other owners of the holy stones shall be subjugated or eliminated." Kleinberg subtly implies moral equivalency between Jews and Islamic jihadists.
IF ANY doubt lingered, he asserts that "between 1949 and 1967, Jerusalem was divided between two of its latest conquerors." There's no difference between the IDF and Jordanian Legion. Jews - who formed the majority of Jerusalem's population already in the early 19th century - are occupiers.
But then again we also "conquered" the Galilee, Jaffa, Beersheba and Eilat.
The foreign reader cannot but conclude that we're interlopers who embarked on arbitrary imperialistic land-grabbing. There's no reference to a concerted Arab attack on the day of Israel's birth, indeed to any Jewish self-defense.
Yet Kleinberg exploits even the limited opportunity afforded by a visual anthology to paint the Arabs as downtrodden. He speaks of "Palestinian villages whose inhabitants had to leave in a hurry," of poor Israeli-Arabs and "governmental neglect." Not one Zionist accomplishment is noted. It's impossible to learn from Kleinberg's text that pioneer Jews made the desert bloom through incomparable self-sacrifice. But he does take care to describe Jewish villages as "brazen" and elaborate about the ecological damage Israelis wrought - in Zionism's name - to the Hula swamp. We aren't only invaders, we're also despoilers of the land.
ISRAEL'S ONGOING struggle for survival against all odds is absent from this post-modern, post-Zionist narrative. There's nothing here to endear Israel to anyone. Indeed, vague doubt about Israel's legitimacy and a hint of sin in its conception are imparted.
The text was clearly intended for uninitiated non-Israelis (as the abundant Christian references indicate). Was it then absolutely imperative to knock "Zionist mythology" by remarking that "recently some Israelis have been arguing that Masada is not an example of heroism but of suicidal fanaticism"?
Kleinberg can deprecate Zionism to his heart's content in scholarly polemics, but a showcase presentation of Israel should hardly serve as his vehicle for compulsive iconoclasm. I returned the album, so as not to rely on the hope that the non-Jewish family, for whom I earmarked it, would only enjoy the photos but avoid reading.
How can we expect convincing hasbara when we can't so much as market a noncontentious gift book? If Israelis can't stick up for themselves and produce minimally pro-Israel texts, who will?
Among my possessions is a modest album celebrating Israel's 10th birthday. In its preface David Ben-Gurion writes without hesitation that "the rebirth of the Jewish state in the ancient Jewish homeland is the greatest miracle of the 20th century." Much of the world admired us back then, even if grudgingly - largely because of proud, patriotic and unapologetic Ben-Gurionesque emphasis on our rights and our justice.
Israel has come a long way from 1958. Its successes far outstrip any disappointments. Indeed, there has been no failure so great as to justify Kleinbergian debunking.
But the Kleinbergs insidiously sap our willpower. It's symptomatic that today's just-elected claimant to Ben-Gurion's mantle declared: "We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies" (Ehud Olmert, Waldorf-Astoria, June 9, 2005).
B-G wouldn't have been caught dead uttering such words, and his contemporaries wouldn't have voted for anyone who did.