Untying the not at 60
The way TV producer Modi Bar-On sees it, Independence Day has been losing its luster over the years, while Israeli society continues to define itself by what it isn't
"We are Lot's wife. We have become petrified by looking back," says Modi Bar-On, who creates and presents historical television series, including "Hakol anashim" ("It's All People") and "Bemedinat hayehudim" ("In the State of the Jews"), which basically take a long look back. The conversation with him centers on "Neshef ha'atzmaut" ("Independence Ball"), a special program to be aired on Channel 8 in honor of Israel's 60th Independence Day.
To kick off the conversation, Bar-On criticizes the fact that recent Independence Day celebrations often embody a longing and nostalgia for days gone by.
What were the past festivities like for him? "It starts with Memorial Day in the Scouts," he says, in his inimitable manner - adopting descriptive yet tangible speech and referring to the past in the present tense. "We prepare the ceremony near Haifa's Moriah movie theater: We write 'fire-signs'; it's an exciting and happy day. On Independence Day, there's a festive stage, with an accordion, folk dancing and hot corn on the cob. I remember being a small child and sensing the joy radiated by the adults.
"I vaguely remember the parade in Haifa, although it really isn't logical for me to have these memories because I was very young. It could be that I'm mixing it up with the display of booty after the Six Day-War ... Of course, I remember the parade in 1968, the images everyone is familiar with. I don't think we had a television back then; probably we went to watch it at someone's house. I remember the Song Festival. We had records at home ... I remember the Bible Quiz - we'd be on tenterhooks to see whether the Israeli would win or the brilliant girl from America. The Israeli always wins.
"I loved watching the fireworks from Haifa Port and the Electric Corporation. The year [Haifa mayor] Abba Khushi died they didn't have any. Apparently they didn't announce that they had been canceled, so I went to the Panorama [overlooking Haifa Bay] with my father and I was terribly disappointed."
Bar-On is 45. His disappointment with Israel's Independence Day, and the state, is inevitable. "Now, I spend the holiday mainly at home. We used to have a cookout on the lawn. If we happened to drive around, you could see fireworks everywhere. It's become just another one of those holidays, like New Year's Eve, when you 'have' to celebrate, but it doesn't really work.
"For my parents - my father came from Transylvania and my mother is a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor - Independence Day was a day of redemption. I get shivers just talking about it. We take that for granted, and rightly so," Bar-On says. "Why don't we celebrate Independence Day like a personal birthday, and talk about dissatisfaction on the birthday of the state, the way private individuals do? This would be part of an attempt at a tikkun [repair]. Never mind that I don't even like birthdays. During our program's opening segments, we show that there has always been something aggressive about those celebrations with the [plastic] hammers beating on people's heads [a formerly popular custom on the holiday]. And there have always been cookouts."
Each of the segments in the program he presents deals with contrasts: Diaspora versus Israeli, secularism versus religiosity, Arabs versus Jews, socialism versus capitalism, altruism versus freierism ("being a sucker," in Yiddish) and future versus past. "Historian Aviad Kleinberg served as our advisor for the series. He suggested that we do programs about the history and traditions of the 'not,'" Bar-On explains, because what emerges from the program is that there is a desirable quality in all these contrasts - that we tend to identify ourselves by what we are not.
In the introduction to the fifth segment on being a sucker, Bar-On sums up the previous parts, in which the Israeli is defined by not being this nor that. He agrees to try to apply these definitions to himself. Like the typical Israeli, he, too, defines himself as non-Diaspora, even though he talks about his ties to his family's past. "When we went to Poland to film the episode on [Yiddish comedians] Dzigan and Schumacher for 'In the State of the Jews,' that was the most difficult week of my life."
At the end of the second segment, on religiosity and secularism, Bar-On proposes "putting things on the table": "In return for giving up the territories, I am prepared to observe the Sabbath and to eat kosher food within the boundaries of the Green Line [the pre-Six Day-War border]. I am even prepared to consider wearing a kippah, which will revive my career." That is, he isn't going to be religious, but will be "a lot more tolerant of religion, seeing its nuances." Above all, "I'd be prepared to make major concessions in the public realm in return for a solution to the conflict."
And if you are already sharing your opinions - is the solution two states for two peoples, or one state of all its citizens?
Bar-On: "Two states for two peoples. Considering the current suspiciousness, a state of all its citizens is impossible to realize. In parentheses, it should be added that it is at least three states for three peoples - even those willing to compromise are perplexed. They don't know to whom to give the keys.
"I am a Zionist at heart. My mother once said to me, 'I came in 1947 and I debarked at Haifa port and everything suited me - the place, the weather, the people - it all suits me.' This sentence has stayed with me. It suits me, too."
Referring to the Arab-Jewish contrast, Bar-On says he tries to be "more Arab." Or perhaps more Middle Eastern. In his mind, the biggest Israeli deception (he says "bluff") concerns Europe - the thought that we belong there, that we will become a part of the European Union. "For thousands of years they told us that we aren't Europeans, and yet we keep hoping. Let's be frank about it: As a Third World country, we're pretty good."
'Only game in town'
In a news report released some two months ago, which announced that Bar-On will continue to be the "face" of Discount Bank's commercial campaign for another three years, it was stated that the bank had chosen him because he "represents the ordinary Israeli, who speaks in simple terms and doesn't look down on others."
Bar-On agrees that he comes from "the heart of the consensus." He currently lives in Pardes Hannah; next year he will move to Tel Aviv, thereby turning from an "external Tel Avivian," as he calls it, into a real resident. He undoubtedly reads more than the average Israeli ("Mostly nonfiction, but also Simenon of late"), is a soccer fan (and, of course, is one of the most well-known and eloquent soccer commentators) and swims at the pool near his home.
"I watch the Beep channel and the elimination episodes of reality shows. I fast-forward through the songs on 'American Idol' and only watch what Simon has to say. I also watch the various documentary channels. Our decision to broadcast on them stems from the desire to control the volume." Bar-On feels as though he is on the fence when it comes to his program's fourth segment on socialism and capitalism, "because I lived through the end of the ideological and social shift. The Nahal Brigade and the kibbutz - they closed down right after I was released from the army. As though they had been waiting impatiently with the keys to shut the thing off. [Menachem] Begin gave his speech about the kibbutzniks being millionaires when I was doing my army service."
Did the segment on socialism and capitalism make you feel particularly uncomfortable? On the one hand, on the program you declare that you are opposed to this new capitalist culture, and on the other hand, you are advertising a bank.
"I'm a capitalist, I can't deny that. It's obvious that I also believe in a safety net, in the involvement of the state, in free education and in free health care. I admit that I play the game, but it's the only game in town."
He goes on to say that, as an individual, "you need to develop an inner ethic - you have to apply the brakes. Even with all the individualism abound, there is a basic feeling of family solidarity here. It's not by chance that we are people who yell all the time. We don't care if people hear our arguments from the other end of the corridor.
"The family has vanquished the entire framework. In our parents' generation there was a need for alternative families because theirs had broken up, but they raised us to be family people in every respect. On the other hand, when your workplace tells you that 'we are like a family,' that's the moment to expect a dismissal notice."
As for the final parameter in the index of Israeliness - being a sucker - which he seems to define as the strongest characteristic of all, he admits that in this regard he differs from the average Israeli. He readily admits that he is a freier. "I am a man of compromises and I avoid confrontations, even on the personal level."
Bar-On, who also teaches at the Democratic School in Hadera, talks about how independence was handed down to him, but how it fails to impact the generations that follow his. "I feel like I can't speak on behalf of this younger generation. I don't really know what they think."
So far, he has failed to understand the message of the official 60th anniversary film clip, depicting a child that shows up at all kinds of historical events, in a manner reminiscent of film character Forrest Gump. "There is something disturbing about this. We are in fact passing the buck to the next generation. On the one hand we are saying we have failed; let them run toward the horizon. It reminds me of how they used to tell us in the army that we would rest when we reached 'the lights.' It took me a while to understand that the lights were the taillights of the command vehicle that was moving forward the whole time."