On this Fourth of July, it bears asking the question: Is Israel becoming more American? The answer is, unequivocally, yes. This is a trend that I’ve noticed for some time and have confirmed through the most scientific of research methods – asking my husband and his parents, who remember “Yisrael shel paam” – the Israel that was. In an age where more Israeli teenagers are going to proms, people are shopping at malls, big chain stores and skipping over the shuk, and we might actually get Sundays off soon, the writing is on the wall– and written in English. This may not quite be the 51st state, as some have joked, but it certainly seems that way at times, when I’m walking through not just parts of Jerusalem, but even into the megastore-strewn heartland.
This trend started, according to my empirical research, about 20 years ago. Fresh out of school and doing an internship at an international news agency, I was asked to cover the then-controversial arrival of McDonald's in October 1993. At the time, I didn’t see the big deal, until I started seeing the golden arches dot the biblical landscapes of the Galilee. Today, McDonald's is still making waves, finding itself facing a possible boycott by settlers and other right-wing Israelis after the local licensee, Omri Padan, refused to allow for the construction of a McDonalds branch across the Green Line – at a mall in Ariel.
But the biggest move away from Israel’s socialist roots came in the mid-to-late '90s, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. Privatization was his mantra – he apparently felt much more strongly about the inherent good of the market than he ever felt about the Oslo Process he’d reluctantly inherited – and that has radically changed the face of Israel. Some of it, I must profess, for the better. Does anyone miss the Bezek monopoly, or having just one television station? Incidentally, Channel 2, Israel’s first commercial TV station, arrived on the scene at the same time as McDonald's, in November 1993.
Most Israelis and Palestinians, I would hazard to guess, care less about the location of a particular burger chain and more about those all-American qualities of value and convenience. At the top of the pyramid of priorities in America are two E’s: easy and entertertaining. Whatever makes our lives easier and entertains us must be good.
Here are five highlights from my long list of American imports:
Stop and shop: Swanky roadside rest-stops with a huge selection of food, wireless internet and clean bathrooms have replaced shoddy old gas stations. Gone are the days when there was nothing to buy on your journey but a felafel at a roadside “mifgash” and you’d try to avoid visiting the filthy gas station bathroom whenever possible. My favorite are along the (privately run) Route 6, where there are rest stops with sushi, espresso and iPhone products, as well as spotless bathrooms.
And then shop some more: Shopping in general has gravitated to large indoor malls, strip malls and Ikea-style buying outside of residential areas, leaving the carless feeling a bit left out: getting there is tough, and there’s only so much you can take on the bus. This underscores that other American phenomena that once-socialist Israel has come to accept – the yawning socioeconomic gaps between rich and poor. The marketplace culture has spilled over into once-sacred areas such as medicine. Want to go private? We can arrange that surgery for you next week. Public? Join the four-month waiting list. Hurray for rugged individualism.
Reality shows: Israelis already love to peer into each others lives, so doing it on TV was a natural extension. Israel has exported a few successful TV series such as “In Treatment” (BeTipul), but has largely been a net importer of shows based on successful models such as “Survivor” (Hisardut), “American Idol” (Kochav Nolad), “The Amazing Race” (Ratzim Ladira) and “The Biggest Loser” (Laredet Begadol). This fall Reshet will offer the “X Factor” hosted by Bar Refaeli, though oops, that’s based on a UK original and not an American show, but who’s keeping track?
Chain stores: Independent businesses are giving way to big national or international chains, a phenomenon that affects many sectors. Most frustratingly this week, I wanted to book a special weekend away at Ma'ale Hachamisha Hotel in the Jerusalem foothills, where we got married a little over four years ago. But it’s now under Orchid Hotel Management, a chain of six luxury hotels and two on the way, and Ma'ale Hachamisha itself is forbidden from making individual reservations. So much for the promises of special treatment for the bride and groom when they return in the future – all callers are sent to an impersonal national reservation hotline where representatives could care less where we tied the knot.
Model nation: Most of the models used in Israeli advertising look like they come from America, or somewhere in Germany or Scandinavia – see these ads from Castro or Honigman. And our top television anchors, particularly the women, look American – or try to with a little help from the hair colorist. While I’ve got nothing against silky blond hair, I can help but wonder, why do we see so few adverts of Israelis with brown skin tones and dark curly hair, despite the fact that that’s more reflective of the appearance of the majority of Israelis? One has the sense that were he created today, Srulik’s curl would have to be Bieberized or flat-ironed.
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