Despite Israel’s tough challenges, which demand substantive debate, too many
reporters distract, sensationalize and trivialize instead. Rather than
deliberating on how to balance the individual freedom needed to prosper
economically with the collective responsibility needed to thrive communally, the
press prefers irrelevant exposés about prime ministerial expenses.
most Israelis’ frustrations with an overly demanding, insufficiently patriotic
eight-percent haredi minority, Yediot Aharonot’s Sunday front page inflamed
matters with its “Cards of Hate” headline, publicizing an ultra-Orthodox,
anti-Zionist card game. And, proving that our media masters give people what
they want, the third “most viewed” Jerusalem Post item this Sunday, sandwiched
between sobering Syria updates, was “Israeli restaurateur goes viral with online
These sideshows reveal a political culture corrupted by media
demagoguery and celebrity worship.
Naturally, when word leaks out about
prime ministerial predilections for designer ice cream, flying beds and fancy
threads, cynics delight and moralists pontificate. But such indignation is
The age of David Ben-Gurion’s hut and Menachem
Begin’s simple salon is over. In our celebrity era, most Israelis expect their
prime minister to look ready for prime time.
And with terrorism looming,
an expensive, imperial security bubble encases the prime minister and his
family, among others. As a democrat, I mourn the resulting distance between the
leaders and the led. But the real world offers little alternative.
US, already in the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter wore sweaters, carried his own
luggage and banned “Hail to the Chief” as too imperial, he appeared
We are spared reports about President Barack Obama’s ice cream
budget and flying preferences because the chief White House usher usually
decides, insulating his boss from controversy.
Israel’s prime minister
has enough worries without these artificial brouhahas. Israel’s government
should establish standard travel protocols – which deliver leaders at their
destinations refreshed and ready to lead – while a chief usher should run the
prime ministers’ residences, making the necessary food, budget and personnel
Even so, in a world obsessed with trivial pursuits, few
presidents and prime ministers can avoid all idiotic
“Unfortunately, when you run for the presidency your
wife’s hair or your hair or something else always becomes of major
significance,” John Kennedy sighed in 1960 when reporters gossiped about both
Kennedys’ hairdos while speculating about how much Jack’s father, Joe, paid for
Jackie Kennedy’s Parisian shopping sprees.
Similarly, I could easily join
the rants denouncing the haredi “hate cards” featuring leading rabbis saying
“the Land of Israel will vomit out the Zionists” and illustrating the Menorah,
the state’s symbol, aflame. But this despicable game’s distributor is a Neturei
Karta fanatic whose grandfather served in the Palestinian Authority. That
revelation – buried on page 10 – makes this the latest chapter in an old tale
about a marginal, self-hating community most ultra-Orthodox detest, too. But it
is easier to caricature the haredim as extremist traitors rather than woo them
as conflicted fellow citizens into a fairer, more mutual, civic
The civilized West’s current civility shortage becomes clearer
if you waste 45 minutes of your life watching celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s
tumultuous visit to Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale, Arizona, compelled by
that human instinct to watch people destroy themselves, publicly.
Samy Bouzaglo run a restaurant with hour-long waits for mushy pizzas and greasy
hamburgers that Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” program tried helping.
the Bouzaglos proved so abusive, resistant to criticism, and foolish, that
Ramsay walked out, furious. Their expletive- filled rants, Samy’s bullying
Israeli ways, and Amy’s angry ditz routine have amused Americans nationwide –
with Israelis lured in because of the added fascination – and shame – brought on
by Samy’s familiar accent and affect.
These three sideshows of the week
reflect a culture that resists seriousness and corrodes community. “Gotcha”
journalism, haredi hooliganism and TV voyeurism offer a pathological mix of
Israel’s own homegrown insanity exacerbated by broader western pathologies. If
Gresham’s Law in economics teaches that bad currency chases out the good, under
today’s Gotcha Grip, idiocy chases out substance, the bad trumps the good, the
sour eclipses the sweet.
As a result, we grumble about prime ministerial
household expenses when we should be marveling at Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu’s skill at managing the Syrian mess – while keeping characteristically
cantankerous Israelis surprisingly supportive regarding his foreign policy moves
Similarly, we are so busy repudiating the zealotry of a
marginal fringe of the 8% ultra- Orthodox minority that we overlook recent
breakthroughs. Highlights include the many self-described “secular” Israelis who
joined Shavuot study sessions and the opening in Jerusalem of the “First
Station.” This renovated railroad terminal includes kosher and non-kosher
establishments and has been welcoming crowds of religious and non-religious,
Jews and Arabs, illustrating a vital, mellow, hip, diverse, tolerant Jerusalem
that never makes headlines.
Finally, we will make the boorish Bouzaglos
into minor celebrities while overlooking noble heroes like my friend Danny
Hakim, whose Budo for Peace Association mounted an extraordinary program this
Sunday night. We saw how martial arts can mix Arabs and Jews and Druze and
Beduins and Japanese with American and Canadian and Ethiopian and Australian and
Israeli accents to create what Hakim called “a common platform” to fight fear
and promote a universal language among young and old.
In her online
meltdown, Amy the cranky cook ranted about the “haters,” claiming they rejected
her slop out of mean spirit, not good taste. By contrast, Zionism has long
celebrated the “builders,” leaders who nurture and protect a nation, developers
who create welcoming public spaces, activists who foster community, and
educators who elevate us all. The builders deserve reporters’ headlines and our
attention – so we can replace the cynical, corrosive, Gotcha Regime with the
Zionist dream of idealism and engagement, facilitating individual and collective
The author is professor of history at McGill University
and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest
book is Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as
Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video! www.giltroy.com