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Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.
You can learn a lot about a nation’s health by watching how it celebrates its national holidays. In Israel’s case, compare how we celebrated our 50th Independence Day in 1998 to what celebrations involve today.
During the 1990s, Israel’s elite took a vacation from reality and history and they brought much of the public with them.
Then-foreign minister Shimon Peres said that history was overrated. The so-called “New Historians,” who rummaged through David Ben-Gurion’s closet looking for skeletons, were the toast of the academic world. Radicals like Yossi Beilin, Shulamit Aloni and Avrum Burg were dictating government policy.
The media, the entertainment establishment, and the Education Ministry embraced and massively promoted plays, movies, television shows, songs, dances, art and books that “slayed sacred cows.” Everywhere you turned, post-Zionism was in. Post-Judaism was in. And Zionism and Judaism were both decidedly out.
As he is today, in 1998 Binyamin Netanyahu was prime minister, and then as now there were prominent voices seeking to blame him for the absence of peace and every other terrible blight on the planet.
In 1998, the government invested a fortune in marking Israel’s 50th Independence Day. The main official celebration was a massive affair called Jubilee Bells that took place at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. More than 2,000 performers participated. But rather than serve as an event that unified Israeli society in celebration of 50 years of sovereign freedom, the event exposed just how far Israel’s political and cultural elite were willing to go in attacking basic societal values.
The Bat Sheva Dance Troupe was scheduled to participate in the program and present a dance set to the traditional Passover song “Ehad mi yodea,” (Who knows one). The song contains 13 stanzas that praise God, praise Jewish law, and outline the Jewish life cycle. In the number Bat Sheva was scheduled to perform, the dancers come on stage dressed as ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and by the end of the song, all they are wearing is underwear.
The choreography enraged members of Netanyahu’s cabinet including education minister Yitzhak Levy. They insisted that the program shouldn’t contain material that insulted sectors of Israeli society. The organizers tried to forge a compromise. But the dancers chose to boycott the festival.
Israel’s cultural and media establishment expressed shock and horror at what they viewed as the government’s attempt to infringe on artistic freedom. The Association of Israeli Artists demanded that a public commission be formed to ensure that the government would be unable to interfere in artistic freedom in the future. Major cultural icons declared cultural war against religious Jews.
The question of whether the dance was appropriate for an official, state- financed celebration of Independence Day was never asked. So, too, no one asked whether a dance portraying ultra-Orthodox Jews moving sensuously to a traditional Jewish song while taking off their clothes reflected the values of society.
To understand the distance Israel has traveled since then, consider Tuesday night’s Memorial Day ceremony at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. None of the performers attacked their fellow Israelis. And the best-received artist and song was Mosh Ben-Ari and his rendition of Psalm 121 – A Song of Ascent.
The psalm, which praises God as the eternal guardian of Israel, became the unofficial anthem of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009. And Ben-Ari’s rendition of the song propelled the dreadlock bedecked, hoop earring wearing world music artist into super-stardom in Israel.
IT WAS impossible to imagine Pslam 121 or any other traditional Jewish poem or prayer being performed as anything other than an object of scorn in 1998. Back then, it would have been impossible to contemplate a crowd of tens of thousands of non-religious Israelis reverently singing along as Ben-Ari crooned, “My help is from God/ Maker of Heaven and Earth/ He will not allow your foot to falter/ Your Guardian will not slumber/ Behold he neither slumbers nor sleeps – the Guardian of Israel.”
It’s not that the crowd would have necessarily booed him off the stage. He simply never would have been allowed on the stage to begin with. The 1990s was the decade that launched Aviv Gefen, the most prominent secular draft-dodger, to stardom.
Israel is no longer in the throes of an adolescent rebellion. It has regained its senses.
True, its celebrities look like Ben-Ari and not like Naomi Shemer. But the message is the same. Israel is a great country and a great nation. Zionism is in. Judaism is in. Post- Zionism is out. Post-Judaism is out.
When last year a group of performers announced they would boycott the Ariel Center for Performing Arts, the public reacted with anger and disgust, not understanding. Fearing a loss of state funding, their theater bosses quickly sought to distance themselves from the performers.
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