Behind the Lines: My beef with Independence Day celebrations

No wonder we began filling the gaping hole with grilled meat.

mangal bbq 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
mangal bbq 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
A large advertisement placed in one of the newspapers on Monday by the Israel Democracy Institute's constitution project read: "59 years in the making. By 60 the job will be done." There is something almost touchingly na ve in the belief that what the country needs most right now is a constitution. As if we don't have enough troubles without the impossible headache of drafting a meaningful national document that all the disparate and warring parts of our society can actually sign. Then it struck me that this might be the first - though definitely not the last - time we'll be seeing this kind of empty slogan. Sixty is a nice round number, but it doesn't have any real meaning. Not that this will prevent ad agencies from trying to peg any and every cause or product to it. Au contraire. Even the government has already started the hoopla by appointing minister-for-just-about-everything Ya'acov Edri to be in charge of the celebrations, and millions of shekels are already being earmarked for the occasion in next year's budget. I'm about old enough to remember the country's last two big birthdays. The 40th was overshadowed by the outbreak of the first intifada; and the much-hyped jubilee celebrations will be remembered mainly for the Batsheva dance troupe fiasco - when education minister Yitzhak Levy was accused of trying to force the dancers to wear more modest costumes at the main event. In other words, for all the money showered on these anniversary extravaganzas, there is no lasting monument, public building or civic project - let alone a single worthwhile memory - that anyone can associate with them. Furthermore, at this point, it's hard to imagine what grand, unifying theme the most unpopular government in our history can come up with to dignify the historical landmark. To be honest, for most of us, simply saying that the Jewish state has managed to survive thus far - more or less in one piece - should be reason enough to celebrate. But, somehow, "60 years of survival" seems a bit too morbid to be in good taste. Not only that. For many Israelis, Independence Day has become a rather melancholy occasion. Three thousand settlers set out on Tuesday to defy IDF roadblocks and marched to the ruins of Homesh, which was evacuated almost two years ago as part of disengagement. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, double that number of Israeli Arabs, together with a handful of ultra-left-wing Jews, held memorial services among the remains of the Arab villages whose inhabitants fled or were ordered to leave during the 1948 War of Independence. As for the haredi community, most simply ignored the date, while its more radical elements participated in mourning prayers. And, of course, there's the intelligentsia, who indulged in morose debates over why this isn't the enlightened, socialist utopia we envisaged, and whether it's politically correct to hoist the same flag that the "fascists" fly over their settlements. It would be easy to dismiss these disparate groups as inconsequential extremists, if the rest of us weren't so busy commemorating our freedom as a nation in our homeland by polluting every last blade of grass in it with carcinogenic chicken-wing fumes. (Apparently, Kadima MK Yoel Hasson wants to propose a law extending Yom Ha'atzmaut by another day. If I were a serious investigative journalist, I'd check to see whether his family isn't by any chance in the frozen meat business.) I MAY be too young to be such a cynical killjoy, but now that Independence Day has been officially purchased by Arkadi Gaydamak's kebab-and-circus conglomerate, I know I'm not the only one asking himself whose independence we're actually celebrating. Still, I promised myself (and my editor) that I wouldn't turn this week's column into yet another moan-fest about the motives behind the mysterious oligarch's money-for-fame schemes. So, instead, I'll turn the spotlight on us as a society. Rather than blaming the authorities for shirking their responsibilities and leaving so much space for Gaydamak to fill, perhaps we should be asking ourselves what makes him think we're for sale - and for such a low price, at that. You're probably telling yourselves right now that only the dregs of society - the hoi polloi - would allow themselves or their future votes to be bought by subsidized hotdogs and a lineup of squawking teenage heartthrobs. You may even be privately harboring thoughts about the manners and family origins of those who thronged to the Yarkon Park to partake of Gaydamak's "gifts." But in what way were your - our - own Independence Day outings superior to theirs? Naturally, driving back from our morning hike and picnic in nature, we felt superior to the masses heading out, bumper to bumper, to set up their mangalim in a standing-room-only nature reserve or parking lot. Later, too, we congratulated ourselves on having our own barbecue in civilized company and the seclusion of a private garden. Indeed, Independence Day is one of the few occasions which allows the middle class to assert its snobbery with panache. But let's face it: When all is said and done, we're all chewing on the same charred steaks and humous-filled pita. Waddling home at the end of the day, stuffed with meat and bloated from beer, don't we get the feeling that there's got to be more to a date that generations of Jews dreamed of reaching? Somewhere out there, there are families who take to trekking, far away from the madding barbecue crowd. And there are still those who have not forsaken the ritual of sitting together in front of the television, trying to solve the riddles of the International Bible Quiz. Once, not too many years ago, such families could have been ours. But that all seems hopelessly quaint today. It has receded into a kind of reassuring background to the real business of turning the holiday into a national festival for carnivores. Which begs yet another dig at the media and advertising industry. For a good two weeks prior to Independence Day, gorgeous models make way in commercials for another form of carcass - equally unattainable in hue and shape by ordinary mortals. But the fact that the steak on our own grill will never look as good as those juicy hunks of perfection on TV doesn't stop us from trying. We spend most of the Pessah holiday fine-tuning our skewer technique. And we avidly read the pages and pages of press given to celebrity-chef tips on the right charcoal and marinade. On the day itself, the most important item on the radio is the traffic update on routes to popular barbecue sites. On the morning after, kids brag at school about whose father had the greatest diversity of creatures on his grill. (This is a "guy thing" - being, as it is in many cases, the only time of year when daddy actually cooks something.) BUT THE real problem with Independence Day is that the novelty has worn off, and hasn't been replaced with anything worthwhile. For decades, Israelis were so proud of and grateful for the continued existence of the state that when we finally got used to its being here, our euphoria transformed into disappointment and disillusionment. No wonder we began filling the gaping hole with grilled meat. Gaydamak, it must be said, knows his customers. Since Mr. Edri is on the lookout for ideas on how to fulfill his new ministerial portfolio, I'd like to suggest spending the 60th anniversary budget on a national effort to tackle the trend of obesity. (Those who have seen me lately can stop sniggering.) The millions usually spent on a flashy, food-filled gala could easily pay for a slick media campaign to counterattack overeating. This may not sound like a great Zionist venture. But if we succeed in shedding a few kilos by next Independence Day, it'll give us all a renewed reason to be proud of being Israeli.