My Word: You've gotta love us - or not

Israel is something that has to be experienced to be understood. As I’ve said before: If New York is a state of mind, Israel is a feeling.

Maccabiah participants from Great Britain 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Maccabiah participants from Great Britain 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Babies do it for me. I do not number among those who were eagerly awaiting the birth of the royal offspring this week, but nonetheless I was pleased that “The Little Prince,” as he was quickly dubbed in the Hebrew media, arrived safe and sound.
I was happy for Kate and William – permit me to be on first-name terms; given all the media attention surrounding the pregnancy and birth, I feel I got to know at least the mother fairly intimately.
I was also slightly jealous. Not of the royal couple, but of the pomp and circumstance with which the announcement was made.
A town crier dressed in a manner that went out of fashion centuries ago would look ridiculous in this part of the world, but it’s part of British tradition and fits the royal delivery like a glove fits the Queen’s hand when she gives a royal wave.
When former British premier Tony Blair visited Israel last month as part of the celebrations around President Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday, he likened Peres to the British monarch, saying: “We have our queen, and you have your Shimon.”
But it’s easy to spot the difference.
Yes, Peres is a figurehead, representing the State of Israel (and possibly more popular abroad than he is at home), but – with all due respect to the impressive guest list at his birthday bash – he is not exactly a tourist attraction.
We have to manage without Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, but at least we have the incomparable history and ancient majesty of Jerusalem and Masada.
Our monarchs go back further than British royalty, but unfortunately the latest EU guidelines put many of their former homes off-limits to Jews. We’re not welcome in Bethlehem, King David’s birthplace, and Judea is beyond the pale according to the European approach.
But perhaps I shouldn’t mention it.
This week, Jerusalem Post editors met with two experts on what is known as “branding” Israel. Both requested anonymity – perhaps internal politics and turf wars go with the territory – but both offered a similar message: “Go beyond the conflict.”
As both explained, the danger to Israel’s image is that it’s consistently perceived through the conflict prism. Similarly, the two noted that while Israel has its fans – and its detractors – more than 50 percent of the people out there in the wide world don’t care much either way about what happens here. These are the people public advocacy campaigns should target, according to both experts.
A rabbi who gives marital therapy once told me that he’s happier to see couples who throw plates and hurl insults at each other than those who simply no longer talk. The former still possess an element of passion, he explained, while the marriage of the latter is usually beyond repair.
We want people to care, the two hasbara specialists noted. And this can be done by showing that Israel is relevant – its hi-tech, agricultural and medical advances save lives and raise standards of living, its values are the values of the Western world.
Actually, at their core, our values are the commandments that the Children of Israel shared with the world before it was divided into East and West.
One reason I was envious of the British celebrations this week is because that is what Great Britain is best known for – the royal family, pageantry and football.
Other countries, too, have their special brand appeal: When the average person thinks of Brazil, the first images that spring to mind are the carnival and soccer (very far from the reality of crime and poverty which most of its citizens have to deal with). China, despite its frightful human rights record and environmental hazards, comes across as an ancient culture and is such an attractive economic partner that the world was willing to hold the Olympics there.
There are places like Sweden (blondes, Volvos and IKEA), Belgium (beer and chocolates), and if you think of Finland at all it is likely to be Nokia phones. But Israel...? Part of the country’s image problem, in my opinion, is not just where we’re situated but where people think we are. Israel is definitely part of the Middle East – a very rough neighborhood that has expanded like ugly urban sprawl to include places as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Yet Israel also, whichever way you look at it, is a Mediterranean country. Its coastline and climate are not so different from that of Greece and Italy. Our history and culture clashed and intertwined with theirs – millennia ago – and there are plenty of worth-seeing archeological sites to prove it.
Whether it’s the sunshine, the sea or something else that’s just indefinably in the air, the Israeli temperament, too, is more Mediterranean than anything else. Tourists who come expecting to find a replica of Jewish New York on the one hand or something Beduin-like on the other won’t be disappointed – they’ll be pleasantly surprised at how wrong they are.
Israel is something that has to be experienced to be understood. As I’ve said before: If New York is a state of mind, Israel is a feeling.
Let’s take, for example, the birth of the royal baby. Every country wished the happy couple “Congratulations!” in its own style. Peres was the only president who wished them “A hearty mazal tov,” but there was something even more definitive about the way Israelis marked the date the future heir to the British throne was born.
There had been those betting he’d arrive on Tisha Be’av – the saddest day in the Hebrew calendar, marking the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, but also traditionally considered the day on which the Messiah will be born. He missed the date (not that I’m belittling the weight of responsibility that falls on the tiny shoulders of the future heir to the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth).
But there must be something fortuitous in having entered this world on Tu Be’av – the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, commonly called the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s Day. There is something uniquely Israeli about this Festival of Love – a holiday stemming from a day of matchmaking for singles in the time of the Second Temple and revived in modern Israel as a popular day for weddings and also an opportunity to hold activities for singles or romantic evenings.
This week the country marked another special Israeli event – the 19th Maccabiah, often nicknamed the Jewish Olympics. More than 9,000 Jewish athletes from more than 70 countries gathered in Israel – a symbol of the sporting spirit and the spirit of survival.
And it was on these Mediterranean shores – or at Ben-Gurion Airport to be pedantic – that some 200 new immigrants arrived on the first of this summer’s chartered Nefesh B’Nefesh flights from North America and the United Kingdom.
They were given a royal welcome – or at least a very warm one. The newcomers know that their lives here will be different from what they’ve known before, but – going beyond the conflict – they also realize that life here is fulfilling – with its peculiar contrasts of ancient and modern, spiritual and mundane.
May Prince George be blessed with a long, happy and healthy life. He’s welcome to come and visit us.
Israel is a kid-friendly country.
And if he wants to bring his great-grandmother with him to Jerusalem, she can be assured of a royal night out on the town, under Mediterranean skies.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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