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Arcadi in a China Shop

Jewish tradition does not hold with memorializing the dead through extravagant monuments. The State of Israel, on the other hand, views fallen IDF soldiers as a central representation of the values of nationalism and strives for formal commemoration.

Last Thursday was supposed to be another one of Arcadi Gaydamak's beautiful days. Accompanied by media crews, the billionaire came to the site of the monument at Sha'ar Yeshuv in the Galilee to the 73 soldiers killed in the 1997 helicopter disaster. He wanted to "check on the work's progress firsthand," i.e., to collect the political return on his contribution ($450,000) to completing the lavish project. Only this time an unpleasant surprise awaited him. Instead of receiving compliments on his philanthropic activity, he was forced to contend with prying questions about a report in Yedioth Ahronoth that same day that exposed his involvement in a uranium plant in Kazakhstan.

Gaydamak responded by the only two means he knows - slogans and money. His reply to Channel 10 was: "I am proud of what I have done because I contributed to stability and security in the world." How exactly? By preventing the Kazakh uranium plant from falling into hostile hands like Iran's. Never mind that his first response to Yedioth was a sweeping denial of its findings. ("My interest in industry in Kazakhstan was only in fertilizers. I was not involved in uranium in any way.") On second thought, he recalled that he did actually invest money in a plant, but only to rescue world peace.

The second way to minimize the public repercussions was to accede to a request from the bereaved parents and donate an additional $120,000 to complete the monument. "It is my duty as a Jewish person to my country," he told reporters. There are investments that are his duty to the world, like the uranium plant, and there are investments that are his duty to the country, like commemorating fallen Israeli soldiers.

The bereaved parents are aware of the problematic nature of their appeal to Gaydamak for help. They would have preferred that the state pay for the monument. After all, Gaydamak is using them to buy himself another chunk of public legitimization and, while he's at it, to drive a wedge between them and the government. He spots the state's difficulty in financing the expensive project, seizes the state's place and inflames public criticism against the authorities.

"I don't feel any guilt over taking money from Gaydamak," said Eli Ben Shem, chair of the Yad Lebanim non-profit organization. "If after 10 years the State of Israel has not had the wisdom to memorialize 73 soldiers, then it is very nice that Gaydamak asked to contribute to this noble cause."

Efrat Asner, a bereaved mother, added: "I'm not happy about this situation. I would expect the State of Israel, which sends its sons to the army, to give some thought to how to commemorate them."

Others saw the contribution as an example of the fallout from the privatization policy, which leads citizens to the wallets of private philanthropists.

But the project memorializing the helicopter disaster raises questions about the culture of commemoration, and not necessarily about the culture of privatization. It is enough to see the plan's size - the site covers a sprawling 11 dunams, where 73 rocks stand. The centerpiece is a pool with the names of the dead floating in it, and an aqueduct leading from it to the crash site of one of the helicopters. The cost of the work totals more than $1 million, of which Gaydamak gave $570,000. The rest came from the Defense Ministry, the Jewish National Fund and other private donors who didn't bother to publicize their contributions.

Is there justification to such a grandiose and expensive commemoration project? Could we not make do with a more modest monument? These are sensitive questions, which hit a raw nerve in Israeli society and create a steady ambivalence. Jewish tradition does not hold with memorializing the dead through extravagant monuments. The State of Israel, on the other hand, views fallen IDF soldiers as a central representation of the values of nationalism and strives for formal commemoration, but is torn between its economic and bureaucratic limitations and a sense of guilt toward the bereaved families. That is the source of the bitter disputes between the parents and the authorities, which have accompanied the building of monuments over the years.

Along comes Gaydamak into this boiling cauldron of grief and memorialization like a bull in a china shop. Why should he care if he sows a bit more discord - so long as he gains another few points in his campaign against the police's investigations and intelligence head, Yohanan Danino, and for the Jerusalem mayoral race.