Thursday, April 23, 2015
Israel in Black and White
Israel is celebrating its 67th birthday today, in a manner that made me truly nostalgic, recalling simpler times when Israel's unity of resolve was matched by a unity of vision, and everyone was family.
At the official state ceremony on Mt Herzl, the twelve torches were lit by people reflecting Israel's great diversity and creative energy, heroes like Alice Miller, a woman who fought in the courts and succeeded to crack the glass ceiling preventing women from serving in combat operations, and Lucy Aharish, an Israeli-Arab news presenter on the English version of i24news. See all the profiles here.
The crowd at Mt Herzl cheered as they watched the flag bearers' formations, - reminiscent of a halftime marching band - depicting Israeli innovations ranging from Iron Dome and the Uzi to the navigation app Waze.
If you keep watching the video after the flag bearers, something strange happens about six minutes in. The picture turns from bright HD color to a grainy black and white. Out pops a gaggle of young dancers right out of a Degania kumsitz, circa 1948, and they hora their way through some classic Israeli dances. Then, three minutes later, the color returns and the music turns definitively Sephardic, and then it swings patriotic for the finale.
For those who grew up with the pimply, cuddly Israel of yesterday, the Israel just out of her teens, this was a happy stroll down memory lane. It struck me as ironic to be recalling that teenage Israel on her 67th birthday, when in fact Israel emerged from her teenage innocence into a very complicated adulthood in precisely that year - '67.
Those few moments in black and white intrigued me. It seemed that the event organizers felt a need to appeal to shared pioneer experiences and that hazy memory of innocence, much as Americans do when they sit down on Thanksgiving with our eyes focused on Plymouth. Few of our ancestors actually came over on the Mayflower, but all of us buy into those warm and fuzzy images of our American origins. Israel, too, has changed dramatically over the decades, but those spinning hora dancers in the baggy clothes are part of the collective memory. That memory is still strong. And so is the yearning for a return to the innocence those dancers represent.
As much as we clamor for the innocence of childhood, we also yearn for the moral clarity. Back when we kids, all the big decisions were clear-cut; it was kill or be killed. As people like Ari Shavit have demonstrated, things weren't so black and white then either; there were moral dilemmas aplenty. For some, the moral clarity still exists to this day: it is still "kill or be killed." But despite real security risks, national consensus is nowhere to be found, and Israel's moral compass instead points to 67 shades of grey.
Moral clarity and mortal danger go hand in hand, and they bring about a strange sense of security. Every act has a deeper intensity; there is a greater purpose to life, a greater sense of urgency in every handshake or hug. Israelis have known that intensity all too much, and it has enhanced their lives even as injuries and fatalities have embittered them. There's at least one story from last summer of a bomb shelter "date" leading to a marriage proposal. But even those shared perils, recalled in the shared grief of Memorial Day, cannot bring Israelis all the way back to their black and white hora days, as reenacted on Mt. Herzl.
It was nice, for a brief time last night, to shed those concerns about Iran's nuclear program and Hamas tunnels, unaffordable housing and the continued struggles of the Women of the Wall (who this week were able to sneak a Torah scroll into their service in order to pray in a manner that dignifies them as human beings and Jews). There are still lots of challenges ahead.
But for a moment - three and a half minutes, to be precise - all those burdens dissolved into a scene from an old Jimmy Stewart film. For one shining moment, Dosh's Srulik caricature (see the top of this email), complete with Tembel hat, was back and reminding us why we fell in love with Israel in the first place.
When American Jews wax nostalgic about Israel, we are sternly warned to put down our Leon Uris novels and see the country as it really is. True enough. But last night, it wasn't Americans who needed to have their heads cleared by a few minutes of grainy dancers, lilting melodies, memories of humid Kineret nights, and a big dose of moral clarity.
It was Israelis.