Every morning, at my kitchen counter, I leaf through two Israeli dailies, both of them in English. The Hebrew papers I read in cafés, not every day. I watch the TV news at 8 pm, on Channel 2. I rarely watch the Israel Broadcasting Authority news in English, but you can see it – and everything else I just named – every day, on the Internet. An engaged American Jew in Beverly Hills or Boston can read Ha’aretz or Yediot on his or her smartphone, the same way I do. If you get into the habit, you can be no less well informed than a Jew in Jerusalem.
But your experience of the information will be different. Reading Israel in the Diaspora is not the same as reading it here. I don’t mean that the experience is “lower” for Jews who have not made aliyah. Certainly, aliyah is not a realistic option for every Jew. And the choice of non-aliyah may also facilitate certain important Jewish values – religious pluralism comes to mind – as many of us who live here are well aware, sometimes ruefully.
I’m drinking Italian coffee, turning pages in my hometown paper, the Jerusalem Post. I sail past an op-ed about “self-hating” Jews and land on the back page at “Arts and Entertainment,” my favorite section. A photo of four young, smiling tourists posing at the Western Wall, like a Birthright pic on Facebook. Headline reads: “CSI stars ‘gather evidence’ in Israel.” Subhead reads: “Four actors from the cluster of CBS-TV crime-scene investigation dramas visit Israel for the first time and declare it ‘close to a utopia.’”
Such an article cannot be skipped over. The four guys in the picture seem different from the stressed-out characters they play. They are on vacation, relaxed, having fun – “the actors Segwayed in Tel Aviv, floated in the Dead Sea” – and not solving gruesome murders in front of the camera, take after take. The best line in the story belongs to Owen Benson Miller, who plays an African American cop in “CSI:Miami”: “As a Christian, he says he ‘had very high hopes for Israel and it’s lived up to and surpassed what I had in mind,’ despite hurting his knee while horseback riding in the Galilee.” In other words, not quite a utopia. But close enough.
The eight-day trip was arranged by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The Post article is credited to Israel 21c, a news service providing articles that engage the reader while stressing Israel’s brightest sides. You may have read this story too, on a screen near you.
Al Buckley, who plays “Adam Ross” in the New York version of CSI, is “an Irish Catholic familiar with the Bible. “ Buckley says he “feels healthier from eating Israeli cuisine,” singling out the cucumbers and tomatoes for breakfast and the “unbelievable” hummus, possibly “the best I’ve ever had in my life.” (Carmine Giovinazzo – “Danny Messer” of “CSI: NY” – is pictured but not quoted.)
On the Israel 21c website are two additional group photos, at Caesarea (Herodian grandeur meets beachfront lifestyle), and at a medical technology firm that has developed an “exoskeleton” that can enable paraplegics to walk. Summed up in the words of the one Jewish actor in the group, Ryan Wolfe of “CSI: Miami”: “Israel is the finest combination of the ancient beginning of civilization and the most progressive, cutting-edge community of right now.” It is Wolfe who pronounces Israel “as close to a utopia as I’ve ever seen.”
The CSI article, judged in its own terms, is a home run of hasbara – variously translated as “explanation,” “public diplomacy,” “PR,” or “propaganda.” Indeed, it’s a Hollywood version of Israeli reality – idealized and prettified – and genuine, so far as it goes. Once, Hollywood made movies like “Exodus” or” Cast a Giant Shadow,” warming the hearts of Zionists everywhere. Now, they make “Munich” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” whose messages are less clear, perhaps subversive. So the hasbara specialists in California and Jerusalem team up and take another tack, enlisting familiar TV faces as enthusiastic pitchmen for the Jewish State.
Is this a good and valuable thing? Is it worth the money and effort? Does it work – and on whom? Breathes there a soul who believes that Israel is all peaches and cream? At the end of the day, does it aid Israel’s cause to flood the information marketplace with stories that omit fundamental, omnipresent problems – or do such efforts often backfire? Is the bright side disingenuous by definition? But does every story have to include conflict and death, like an episode of “CSI”? Isn’t it nice to be uplifted once in a while?
Reading the 21c story against the Israel I live in, I am unavoidably put in mind of a poem called “Hollywood Elegies,” penned in Los Angeles around 1942 by the brilliant German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. He was not a Jew, but he was a Marxist, and fled the Nazis too. He landed in California in 1941 and tried to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, but without much success. Meanwhile, more adaptable émigrés, such as Billy Wilder, were thriving. Brecht was not so much a refugee as an exile, and his acerbic view of Hollywood reflects it. In the “village of Hollywood,” he wrote, people have
. . . come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
(Translation by John Willett)
I don’t mean to exaggerate, but you do get the point. Imagining an Israel of omnipresent prosperity and leisure, cutting-edge science and heavenly beauty, is indeed utopian, in the undying spirit of Theodor Herzl’s fantasy novel of 1902, “Altneuland.” But Israel has never been a utopia, and won’t be anytime soon. Just ask Reform rabbis, Eritrean asylum seekers, Palestinians, frightened haredim, displaced Gush Katif settlers, underpaid workers, disgruntled students, and pretty much anyone else who lives here.
Recently, Jews the world over re-read the weekly Torah portion “Shelach-Lecha,” which features the famous tale of the twelve spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land. After 40 days of evidence-gathering, they return with sobering news. In verses of close proximity, Israel is described as both “a land of milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27) and a “land that devours its inhabitants” (13:32).
In the Bible story, the Israelite masses despair, and want to return to Egypt, for which they are punished. They will die in the desert and not enter the Land. But now that we, their distant heirs, have re-entered Israel, the spies’ candid prefiguration of Brecht seems both valid and necessary. On the other hand, a Hollywood segue to a Segway in Tel Aviv sounds pretty good too.
Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of its Engaging Israel project.