Middle Israel: Sholem Aleichem comes to Sderot

Arkady Gaydamak behaves like a well-armed colonialist buying primitive natives with marbles.

arkady gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
arkady gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
"Only he who grew up his entire childhood in a small town, and then went out for the first time to the air of God's world, only he can understand and feel the great happiness and the wonderful pleasure and the broadening of the mind that the simple travelers felt on their first ride," wrote Sholem Aleichem in Hayei Adam - A Human's Life, in which the great Yiddish writer caricatured his proverbial shtetl, Kasrilevka. Watching this week the wretched of Godforsaken Sderot elbow their way to a hopeful free ride to Eilat, I recalled how Sholem Aleichem's villagers, once finally aboard the horsedrawn carriage that took them, for the first time ever, away from their hometown, were "so excited that they didn't know what to do and where to sit; either they reclined, the way their fathers would at the Seder table, or they tucked their hands in their pockets and lay flat on the hay-covered floor, or they all bunched together, hanging onto the carriage curtain's hooks." Sholem Aleichem, the Jewish Mark Twain, was not being arrogant. He was talking about a world he loved, missed, and never really abandoned. That's not what happened this week in Sderot, where one dubious philanthropist and a disoriented government teamed up to humiliate the embattled targets of Hamas's rockets. The problem with Arkady Gaydamak is that he behaves here like a well-armed colonialist buying primitive natives with marbles. The problem with Ehud Olmert is that his non-leadership creates the governmental vacuums that so forcefully suck in nouveau-riche exhibitionists. And the problem for all of us is that this week's scenes made our hard-won Jewish state look like a shtetl, in the worst sense of the term. THE MOST incredible thing about Gaydamak's conduct is that he really thinks money gives its owner the right to trample anything, anyone, anywhere, at any time and for whatever reason. That is how this Russian-born owner of an Angolan passport who doesn't speak to us in Hebrew and is sought by France for alleged tax evasion and illegal arms dealing allows himself to publicly humiliate the prime minister of the country that is graciously sheltering him while others pursue him. It is one thing for Middle Israelis, who have spent their best years here and seen Israel's battlefields from within, to attack Ehud Olmert. Gaydamak, who reportedly left Israel several months after entering it in 1972 at age 20, is in no position to do that. Then again, how should he know? It was, after all, Olmert himself who catapulted Gaydamak to public notice, and - so to speak - laundered his image when he, as finance minister, brokered some of Gaydamak's high-profile sports-club buyouts. Now Olmert must be scratching his head: "What have I done to this Angolan that makes me deserve this kind of treatment from him; is this his idea of gratitude?" Well, fair or not, Olmert now has only himself to blame, as the billionaire over whom he fawned has since shamed him repeatedly - once up north by creating a tent city for Katyusha victims, and then down south, by offering vacations to Kassam targets. BACK IN the shtetl, ignoring the czar and his government was a norm, a value and a form of art. Emperors whose anti-Semitism flowed in their veins as naturally as their blood could always be counted on to find new ways to harass the Jews, from bans on free movement to kidnappings of children for decades of military service. Apparently, this is the heritage on which Gaydamak was raised. His subsequent experiences apparently made him even more hostile to government, any government, so much so that he now is out to unleash his own political project here. Alas, to do that he would need to be a Natan Sharansky, who even after having suffered heroically as a prisoner of Zion made sure to quietly spend a full decade here becoming an ordinary Israeli before entering the political fray, and even then never lost his politeness, even while figuring prominently in heated ideological debates. Clearly, Sharansky understood all along that at stake, beyond his particular agenda, was the very survival of the Jewish state. Unfortunately, this kind of unequivocal patriotism cannot be assumed when it comes to someone whose source of wealth remains largely unexplained, and whose biographical itinerary reads like an encounter between the historic Court Jew and Wandering Jew. And this week, having watched Gaydamak fan in Sderot flames of hysteria, defeatism and escape, Middle Israelis can only suspect he simply does not understand that he is damaging the country's fighting spirit, and that he has yet to learn the difference between statehood and shtetlism. For generations, Zionists were educated to see in the shtetl the Jewish state's antithesis. From the shtadlen to the pogrom, it was conceptually fraught with all the humiliation, discrimination, submission, degeneration and low self-esteem that Zionism sought to eradicate. That is how Ben-Gurion's great ideal of mamlachtiyut, or stateliness, came into being. Once Ben-Gurion consolidated the state, it was unthinkable that citizens anywhere in it would be abandoned to terror's devices for a protracted period of time, and even more inconceivable that their treatment would be outsourced, whether actively or passively, to a private individual, let alone one whose roots in this society are shallow, and whose latent message to Israelis under attack is: escape! The suicide attacks this decade on Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv were much more deadly than Sderot's share of Kassams, yet no one thought of leaving in their wake. Even in Kasrilevka, writes Sholem Aleichem, the story was that "our ancient forebears once crowded the local synagogue for three days and three nights wrapped in their prayer shawls and tefillin chanting Psalms" until a gathering pogrom's threat was dispelled. Those unarmed Tevyes' idea of fighting may have been different from ours - but even they didn't flee. Under Ben-Gurion's leadership, the people would be shielded and the leaders would be with them. Now, to reply effectively to the blow Gaydamak has just dealt him below the belt, Olmert can announce Sunday morning that rather than send Sderot's inhabitants on a futile escapade, he is moving to live there himself. Of course, this is nearly science fiction under the current Zeitgeist of national striptease, a time when Israeli leadership in one week lost Natan Sharansky and gained Arkady Gaydamak.