Rattling the Cage: Speaking truth to power

The country's culture of dissent is what I admire.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
I was being assaulted by the fawning, starry-eyed TV coverage of the President's Conference last week in Jerusalem, the huge ego trip of a party that Shimon Peres put on for Israel's 60th birthday, and I remembered a letter I'd written to a friend back in America soon after I made aliya. It was 1985, Reagan was the president, America was in love with money, power and itself, and I tried to convey to my friend, a real leftist, not a liberal like me, what a heady experience it was being here. "It's pretty amazing," I wrote, "living in a country where the prime minister is a socialist." That socialist prime minister, of course, was Shimon Peres. And his journey from socialism to the diamond-studded smugness of the President's Conference is a good illustration of what's happened to Israel in the last generation: It's lost all trace of humility. Peres meant the event to be the country's showcase, and it was. The star was George W. Bush, one of the worst US presidents in history, an American Nero, a serial screw-up, a spouter of cliched nonsense. History is waiting for him with a vengeance. But he loves Israel, hates Israel's enemies, and talks a great war, so he's our hero. You can tell a person by his friends, you can tell a country by its friends, and it sickens me that Israel has become the kind of country whose best friend in the world is this swaggering mediocrity. But these are the types who are inspired by Israel today: the proud and self-righteous of Judeo-Christendom. The true believers. Republicans. Nationalists. Militarists. Social Darwinists. Right-wing billionaires like Sheldon Adelson. ADELSON WAS the other star of the show - the major donor ($3 million) of the event, the richest Jew in the world, the casino king, king of Israel, king of the Jews. George W. Bush and Sheldon Adelson. Texas and Las Vegas. Happy birthday, Israel. Here were all these billionaires and big-shots flattering Israel and each other, praising this country with platitudes that would have embarrassed Leon Uris, and this was Israel's showcase for its 60th birthday. I couldn't have felt more alienated, more out of place. Then last Friday morning, as the President's Conference was wrapping up, I read Nahum Barnea's weekly column in Yediot Aharonot. It's by far the most avidly-read, influential piece of journalism in Israel's largest, most influential newspaper. Barnea is the nation's commentator, the country's most respected and most popular voice. On Friday, with Peres's guests still fanning themselves in Jerusalem, Barnea took on the glittering event's honorary chairman. "Adelson is a Jew who loves Israel. Like some other Jews who live a safe distance from here, his love is big, emotional, suffocating," Barnea wrote. "Adelson resembles the others, yet he is different. He has the domineering manner, the bluntness, of someone who has made a lot of money fast. He doesn't ask, he commands." The column quoted the head of a major American-Jewish organization saying that Adelson "talks to me like I'm his property." Barnea wrote that he heard "similar complaints from others, Americans and Israelis, who caught hell from Adelson." An Israeli mayor and an American Jewish millionaire told the columnist how Adelson had bullied them, while the head of another American Jewish organization was quoted as saying Adelson "would like it if all the Arabs disappeared. He thinks, evidently, that the Arabs are poker chips." Taking in the President's Conference, Barnea wrote: "I saw a gambling mogul from Las Vegas who bought my country's birthday for three million dollars. I wondered, sadly, if this country was worth so little. If the champagne and wine and sushi given out for free in the lobby... were worth the self-abasement." IF YOU ask me what I admire most about Israel, I might start with Nahum Barnea. It's not only that Israel can produce such a great journalist, essayist and thinker, it's that such a writer, such a fearless, iconoclastic writer, can be so popular and influential. It says something very encouraging about this country. For the same reasons of quality, bravery, popularity and influence, I'd name the TV news satire Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country) as something that makes me proud of Israel. I'd also mention David Grossman, Amos Oz and Israeli literary authors in general. Novelists and poets have a public standing here that is unimaginable in the country I used to live in. This is what I admire most about Israel, more than the fighting spirit and high-tech genius that were gushed over at the President's Conference. For me, it's the freedom of speech. The freedom of dissent. The abundance of dissent, the audience for dissent, the national culture of dissent. Even Israel's Arabs are part of it, and they're not part of much else around here. It's true - this country has lost its humility, it's sold most of its soul to the billionaires and the Republicans. But not all of it. This is still a place where you can speak truth to power, and a lot of people will listen. That's not a small achievement for any society, especially one as insecure as this. Happy 60th, Israel.