Flipside: Waves of emigration threats

The people of Sderot don't have the luxury to wait for an election to escape their own deaths.

ruthie blum USE! 298.88 (photo credit: )
ruthie blum USE! 298.88
(photo credit: )
"If Arkadi Gaydamak becomes mayor of Jerusalem," a friend announced recently, "I'm leaving the country for good." This is not the first time a born-and-bred Israeli has announced, in my earshot, his intention to head for the Diaspora in response to the rise of some figure or other to a position of power. In fact, if I had a shekel for every such statement, I'd be as rich as the Russian whose name has become a household word in these parts, no matter how ill-pronounced. In July 1977, when I arrived at The Hebrew University, I was struck by the large number of fellow students who were supposedly about to pack their bags due to what has come to be known as the "mahapach." This was the catchphrase given to the political upheaval caused by an "unthinkable" turn of events: Two months earlier, Menachem Begin had become prime minister. "Well, that's that," agreed many enlightened sabras, some of whom still harbored secret solidarity with Stalin. "If Mussolini holds the reins, what's left for us here?" A mere two years later, when "Mussolini" signed a peace treaty with Anwar Sadat, according to which the Sinai would be handed over to Egypt, another chorus began to be chanted - albeit from very different circles. "It's all finished," wailed woe-struck right-wingers. "There's no point in remaining in a state whose leader is willing to relinquish strategic assets in exchange for false promises - ones that will pave the way for its destruction." The next wave of emigration threats came in late 1982, when the first war in Lebanon made its mark by arousing the kind of sentiment among liberal sectors of society which was eerily reminiscent of that of the anti-Vietnamers in the United States. "With a fascist soloist like Arik Sharon as defense minister," the cafe choir chanted, with a major-key crescendo following the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre for which he was blamed at home and abroad, "We're better off driving taxis in New York and Los Angeles." (This is the same Sharon who, two decades later, would inspire similar cries from the opposite direction when he became prime minister and executed the disengagement from Gaza that involved forcibly removing Jews from their homes.) A NEW round of gevalt-screaming came in 1993, when Ehud Olmert was elected mayor of the capital - thus ending the Teddy Kollek era. Jerusalemites, and other landsmen sympathetic to their counterparts in the Holy City, moaned about their having to move to Tel Aviv, if not Tuscany, to escape a fate worse than death: a right-winger who was sure to undercut the arts while oppressing the Arabs. These were the civic-minded cultural elites who booed and hissed when Olmert opened the annual film festival at Sultan's Pool. The same Olmert who presented the Jerusalem Prize to radical author Susan Sontag - whose acceptance speech began with her apologizing for taking an award from an "occupier of another people." The same Olmert who was elected prime minister last year on a platform that has kept the Right reeling, and a performance level that's making the Left apoplectic. "If he isn't defeated fast," one loyal citizen said mournfully, "I'll have to go elsewhere." Then came the outcry over Uri Lupolianski, Olmert's successor at City Hall in Jerusalem, an ultra - dare one even say it without gasping? - Orthodox Jew. "The haredim have taken over," declared a distressed secular resident in 2003, when Lupolianski won the municipal election. "I'm out of here." This is the same Lupolianski whose city hosted the annual Gay Pride parade in 2005 amid strong opposition - to put it mildly - from religious communities. (The international gay pride parade that was supposed to take place in the same year was first postponed due to the police's being otherwise occupied with disengagement, and then due to the second war in Lebanon last summer. The police, it should be noted here, were needed to protect the homosexuals and lesbians from harm.) GAYDAMAK, THEN, is in good company. Which may be fine with him. But what I'd like to know is: 1) Why are Israelis always looking for an excuse to live elsewhere? And 2) Why has Gaydamak become the ghoul of the hour? The answer to the first question is pretty much a no-brainer. All it takes is a little trip to America - which Israelis have gotten to know, coast-to-coast, like the back of their hands - to get it. There's nothing like seeing how the other half lives, especially when it's of the "half-full" variety, to make us Middle Easterners cringe when we return to the Mediterranean and look at our paychecks. As for the second question, the only answer I've managed to extract from Gaydamak's detractors is that he made his billions dealing arms. Which means, they say, that the unbelievable generosity he has exhibited toward the very poor people everybody's always so concerned about here doesn't count. Another criticism is that he is "buying votes." Now there's a hoot. This is not only a country without a constitution, but one with a cockamamy and overly complex electoral system that lends itself to maneuvering and manipulation, including monetary machinations. Gaydamak has said that Israelis take one look at a wealthy Russian immigrant and immediately accuse him of dirty dealings. Perhaps. And perhaps, even, there is some merit to their misgivings on this score. But he has also called on the attorney-general either to indict him or leave him alone already. I mean, you've got to give the guy at least some credit for demanding to prove his case in court. Even billionaires don't deserve to be besmirched through innuendo and ongoing investigations that so far haven't borne fruit. Especially if they are busy building tent cities for refugees of bombardment whose bomb shelters are either in unusable shape or nonexistent. MY FRIEND may imagine she's ready to move to Tel Aviv if Gaydamak becomes mayor of Jerusalem, because that would be a "fate worse than death." The people of Sderot don't have the luxury to wait for an election to escape their own deaths. Thanks to Gaydamak, they can head for Tel Aviv today. ruthie@jpost.com