Middle Israel: Person of the year

Our person of the year might have been a warrior, whether failed or successful, but – fortunately – in 5770 the enemy seldom coughed and our borders mostly yawned.

By
September 3, 2010 16:22
ADA YONATH, Nobel Prize winner in Che

Ada Yonath 311. (photo credit: Weizman Institute)

Our person of the year might have been a warrior, whether failed or successful, but – fortunately – in 5770 the enemy seldom coughed and our borders mostly yawned.

So militarily anticlimactic was the past year that some of our generals found time for cockfights that could have inspired real politicians, as one soldier in a brown beret outflanked another in a red cap, and another tripped a fourth, one with commandos’ batwings dominating his chest.

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Under other nonmilitary circumstances, they and the brouhaha they stirred could still have produced our man of the year, if only ours had been a political year, one in which such a knot of improbable wheelers, dealers, manipulators and backstabbers had been emblematic of something larger than the sum of their egos.

But 5770 was no political year either. Ours could, of course, have been a political year if only something politically grand had happened, say the passage of a constitution, the adoption of a visionary school reform or the completion of an inspiring national project, like a Tel Aviv subway, or a hydroelectric canal, or even just halving our 39-person cabinet, or making do with one rather than two chief rabbis, or decimating new cars’ sales taxes.

So none of this happened in 5770 – and take it from me, it won’t happen in 5771 either – and just like we can’t nominate a general we also cannot nominate a politician, which is not to say that our politicians will in any event not produce next year’s man of the year.

FOR ONE thing, our man of the year is not necessarily someone good that did something nice; Hitler, Stalin and Khomeini were Time magazine’s Man of the Year, each in his turn, because their evil mattered so much more than any of their contemporaries’ goodness, and this column has also named, separately, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the suicide bomber. So not that we expect any Israeli politician to do something savage anytime soon, but they sure are prone to do something sufficiently stupid to dominate an entire year’s place in our history – in which case, of course, whoever it is that wins this dubious distinction can be counted on to be our person of the year.

Obviously, there is also the happy scenario, whereby someone arises from the mist and, as the sages said, buys his world in one hour. In 5771 this may happen if peace breaks out with Syria, the Palestinians, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia or even just Tunisia, Kuwait or Oman – whoever makes it happen can be counted on to be our man of the year. In 5770, however, all this remained as elusive as ice in the Sahara.

NOW THE fact that nothing noteworthy was done here last year politically or diplomatically does not mean something noteworthy was not done elsewhere, and in a way that might solve our dilemma. For in 5770 the Jewish state came under a new type of attack, a pincer movement led by studious jurists from here and boating lowlifes from there.

Should our person of the year, then, be Richard Goldstone, the apartheid stalwart whose UN-commissioned report has blamed, shamed and defamed the Jewish state in a way it could no longer ignore? Well, he may have been, but for the technical problem that he issued his report in 5769, albeit in its last week, when most here still thought they could dismiss it as water under the bridge. Now true, the report’s damage happened mostly in 5770, but by then the man who wrote it all but vanished, apparently having himself failed to foresee the havoc it would wreak. So the Goldstone Report was the Document of the Year, but Goldstone, the man, proved to have been a tool – a cowardly Jew used by non-Jews who believe in turning the other Jewish cheek.

Fair enough. If so, perhaps Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is our Man of the Year? This man, after all, did his number well within 5770, and stood firmly in the thick of the global effort to corner, tease, libel, abuse, threaten and slander the state of the Jews.

Then again, like the flotilla he inspired, Erdogan did not dominate our year, having stopped short of severing ties with Israel, and having failed in his transparent quest to be crowned leader of the Middle East.

IT FOLLOWS, then, that our person of 5770 should not be related to a particular skirmish, whether military, political or diplomatic, and that leaves us with people who rather than emerge in the eye of this or that storm, simply symbolized something we either need, crave or admire.

As far as necessity is concerned, 5770 was not the year of Israeli innovations like the disc-onkey, ICQ or firewall software, but the year of the iPad, which was not developed here, and will benefit Israelis no more than it serves the rest of homo technologicus.

As for desires, 5770 will go down as the year in which one of Israel’s most veteran dreams, to own minerals, was realized, after vast quantities of gas were found off our coasts, and now it turns out they may also include oil. Then again, unless we nominate the oil barrel as our Person of the Year, this too will not solve our dilemma as the gas finds are less the vision of a particular Israeli and more the doing of modern instrumentation that allows undersea detection from the sea surface.

And so we are left with admiration. And on this front we have a clear choice: Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath.

Born humbly in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood ages before it became a haredi bastion, and having lost her father as a child, Ada helped support the household by teaching Hebrew to new immigrants before serving in the IDF and then studying chemistry at the Hebrew University. Her subsequent breakthroughs at the Weizmann Institute in the study of the ribosome – the biological mechanism that most people never heard of, but manufactures the proteins without which they would not live – have earned her glory, and also become the butt of Israeli jokes. For instance, after Prof. Yonath called for the mass release of terrorists in return for Gilad Schalit, comedian Jacky Levi said he expected fellow Nobel Laureate Barack Obama to say something equally opinionated about the ribosome.

Still, even super-hawks forgave Yonath her politics, realizing that the very fact she had strong views and could not resist the opportunity to make them known made her the ultimate Israeli. Middle Israelis, for their part, were heartened to receive a reminder that while their politicians clamor, their diplomats stammer and their generals quarrel, 42,000 less pompous Israelis – the highest per-capita share of scientists in the world – explore creation as quietly, diligently, modestly and inventively as Yonath had done for half a century before anyone but her family, friends and students knew her name.

Prof. Ada Yonath reminded us that, warts and all, there are wonderful things happening in the Jewish state, things that transcend our countless day-to-day hardships, frustrations and banalities, things that put to shame the international effort to deface us, and vindicate our founding fathers’ quest to build here a bastion of inspiration, curiosity, diligence and excellence. In 5770 Prof. Ada Yonath emerged as an embodiment of all this. That is why she is our Person of the Year.

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