Secret of the gangster's charm
Television viewers on the eve of Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars who wanted to zap their way out of the realms of depression may well have come across the two lengthy interviews that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave to CNN and Sky News (Monday, 9 P.M. and afterward).
Television viewers on the eve of Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars who wanted to zap their way out of the realms of depression may well have come across the two lengthy interviews that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave to CNN and Sky News (Monday, 9 P.M. and afterward). On the face of it, the gloomy Israelis could have drawn consolation and even a measure of pride from the important place that these two major networks gave the prime minister in prime time. Such Israelis could momentarily delude themselves into thinking that the world (and CNN is definitely some sort of representation of "the world") was paying honor to a man who wields power, the man who likes to confront the world with faits accomplis and proved himself again in the current military operation in the territories. Sharon, for his part, projected complacency and cool in the interviews, and the interviewers did not stop him from dwelling at length, like a beneficent grandfather by the fireside, on the stories of his heroism, his battle wounds and so forth, or from delineating, with smiling optimism, his plans for regional peace.
To understand the nature of the charm that CNN and Sky News apparently found in the relaxed posture Ariel Sharon displayed, we need to invoke gangster films, such as "Pulp Fiction," in which the criminal wins the heart of the viewer with his nonchalance while blowing smoke rings or listening to an aria from "Tosca" or declaiming chapter and verse from Ezekiel in the tensest situations.
Another secret of the gangster's charm is that matters that to anyone else appear extremely serious, such as someone's death, are to him nothing to get excited about. He taps a finger and someone drops dead somewhere. More and more fall, and he, the gangster, continues to wax nostalgic about his wounds in battle and the like. Because what the gangster says is always a disguise or a delaying tactic until the moment that he nods his head, and with that nod houses will collapse on their occupants; the houses of the rival gang.
The interviewers from CNN and Sky News and their viewers across the seas would certainly not want a gangster like that to be the head of their country or want it run according to the rules of action films. If they don't begrudge us Sharon, it's obviously because Israel, and the whole concentrated headache known as the "Middle East" are for them something like an action serial.
In the final episode in this series (Channel Two news, Tuesday, 9:15 P.M.), a special unit of the Israel Defense Forces was seen apprehending, live, the Tanzim commander Marwan Barghouti. His hands are bound with white plastic handcuffs and he is placed in an army jeep. The soldier next to him gives him mineral water to drink from a bluish bottle. Barghouti nods his head in thanks. It just goes to show you that there are codes of courtesy even in the world of gangsters.
For a while now, John Simpson, the senior BBC correspondent, has been in Jerusalem on special assignment for the British state channel. As he was already here, he turned Jerusalem into the arena for his well-known program "Simpson's World" (BBC, Sunday, 9:30 P.M.).
Wherever his program is set, be it Kabul, London or Johannesburg, it has a permanent structure of taking a stroll with a local resident, someone famous or perhaps someone unknown to the world, and in the course of seemingly idle chatter peculiarities to which the locals have become tiresomely accustomed are revealed. Simpson's foreign gaze and his cameras cast a light on them that is new, surprising and sometimes funny, too.
As his companion for the Jerusalem walk, Simpson could have taken a writer such as Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua or Batya Gur, or chosen a professor of Jewish studies from the Rehavia neighborhood. If he finally chose another, Shifra Horn, it is probably because he must have considered her a writer without pretensions, lacking concrete political opinions, as lovely and as gray as the stones of Jerusalem. Like everyone, she wants peace but recognizes our right of self-defense against terrorism, and explains this as well as she can in Israeli English, with true feeling, next to the Moment Cafe, a bizarre monument to our supposedly firm stand in the face of terrorism.
Unfortunately, Jerusalem has never looked more wretched than it does these days, and Simpson's ironic cameras made sure to show this very unsubtly. The capital of the State of Israel looked like a city without shade and without balm, utterly deserted and ear-splittingly loud, so much so that as they passed near the prime minister's residence, Simpson apologized to the viewers for the insane whining and wailing that emanated from the various protective devices in the area and for all the indefinite explanations of his companion about how we are torn within and so forth.
Toward the end of the guided tour of the open insane asylum that has been dubbed the eternal city, Simpson and his companion walked over to two women who were proudly holding a handwritten poster encouraging the Israeli army in its war. The women are from the national camp, Shifra Horn explained, and they are in favor of territorial concessions in return for a secure peace. Simpson then crossed the road. A flag-draped old Ford Transit that appeared out of nowhere almost ran him over and the driver pressed his hand on the horn and stuck his arm out the open window. On the sidewalk on this side of the street were protest signs of the peace camp and two people who were guarding them. They too are in favor of territorial concessions in return for a secure peace.
Better to receive than to give
Seventy-five Palestinians have recently received medical treatment in Israel and we didn't know. Along comes the Channel One evening news (Sunday, 9 P.M.) to tell us at length how humanitarian we are, to the point where, at the height of these days of terror, our physicians do not balk at treating the children of the enemy - in part within the framework of a major international project of Wolfson Medical Center in Holon for children with heart defects. Everyone has the same heart, the physician in charge of the project says humanistically. Once he heard one of these kids shout with joy at a terrorist incident. He swallowed hard and carried on with the treatment.
If we examine the matter a little more deeply (Channel One news has no time for such niceties), we discover that humanitarianism, here and everywhere else, is always measured in money. Humanitarianism photographs well and is needed by hospitals to raise funds abroad. And nowadays, when Israel's name is being sullied in the international community and the donations are at high risk, what could be smarter than to take a Palestinian woman from Ramallah who will swear on-camera that she never encountered any difficulty at roadblocks when she brought her son, who is ill with cancer, to Jerusalem for treatment?
In a surprising coincidence, the investigative program of France 2 the next day (Monday, 12:15 A.M.) broadcast a lengthy item that was entirely devoted to the corrupt practices that exist in most of the world's humanitarian organizations, especially those based in France. Wherever the reporters followed the route the money takes from the donor's pocket to the refugee in Kosovo, Afghanistan or Gaza, it turned out that more than half the sum fell by the wayside in the form of salaries for the humanitarian functionaries and for the upkeep of their offices. So little remained for the truly needy that in order to receive the coupon entitling her to a monthly sack of rice, a refugee woman from Sierra Leone had to pay a sexual bribe to the official responsible for distributing the food in the camp. After the scale of this humanitarian rape was exposed, observers were sent from Europe to oversee food distribution. The report showed one of the inspectors, a Frenchwoman, her face flushed from the heat, shrugging her shoulders and saying, "We will never understand the way they think."
One of the first who drew international attention to the improprieties in the aid organizations was Sylvie Brunel, an impressive Frenchwoman who was interviewed demonstratively in the Trocadero in Paris, in front of the Musee de l'Homme. Brunel was for a time the president of Action Against Hunger and resigned amid a public storm after the organization rejected her very proper request to reveal the complete truth to the donors: that Action Against Hunger, like many other bodies of its type, had long since become an institution that operated mainly to keep itself going, while the aid for which it was established occupied second place at best on its list of priorities.
According to the program, one of the peaks of cynicism was registered by the Medecins du Monde (Physicians of the World) group, which is housed in a luxury building in the 18th Arondissement of Paris and has 120 paid staff, some of them very well paid indeed. To facilitate things for themselves, the organization's officials transferred the work of shipping medical equipment to impoverished countries to private customs brokers. The shipping expenses are so steep that by the time the organization's funds get to Gaza, say, all it can do is maintain one wretched clinic with a staff of seven - three Palestinians and four foreigners. In Paris, in the meantime, the organization rakes in 80,000 euros a day from donations alone. The poverty of those who are the end of the chain ensures the riches of those at the top.