Try as I did, I just couldn't manage to get worked up about the Glenn Beck festival in the Holy Land. For all the hype surrounding his visit and the extravaganza by the Temple Mount, he is simply another televangelist ramping up the Armageddon rhetoric and cashing in on the 21st-century version of crusade-via-multimedia. Not the first of his ilk to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and certainly not the last.
Indeed, how could he keep away? Israel is a dreamland for that particular brand of populism, with every kind of biblical, mythological and present-day political symbolism necessary to complete the perfect spectacle. Add into the mix a high-profile meeting with the prime minister, a mixture of Christian and Jewish admirers and a healthy degree of controversy, and you'll see why Jerusalem is a permanent fixture on the born-again itinerary.
I fail to see what all the fuss is about. My interest was piqued for a few minutes when I heard earlier this week that the Jerusalem Great Synagogue cantorial choir had backed out of its engagement to sing at the Beckfest, but that was for personal reasons. Many years ago, when I still had a clear and somewhat melodious voice, I was a minor ornament of the short-lived children's choir at the Great Synagogue. But we were disbanded after just three performances as we couldn't take the rehearsals seriously, preferring to noisily roam the cavernous back-passages of the monstrosity on King George Street to practicing our choruses. The idea that the choir, a group of earnest and gentle music-lovers, had somehow become embroiled in matters of international religious-politics seemed too preposterous for words, but after a few minutes of amusement, I turned back to more weighty issues.
And yet, as I cast around for a subject for this week's column, I can't help noticing how the local media and blogosphere have all dedicated major space to the man and his attention-grabbing efforts. I read that opposing groups of protesters, from left and right, clashed outside his "Restoring Courage" rally on Wednesday evening. If this was just another drowsy August with little happening, perhaps I could understand a certain degree of passing interest, but in a month in which Israel is being buffeted by renewed warfare on the southern border, social turmoil at home and the disintegration of Arab regimes all around us, surely we all have more pressing matters to deal with.
I was especially intrigued by a placard held up by one of the Peace Now protesters calling upon Beck to go back home - "we have enough extremists of our own," it said. How true, and therefore why waste time on Mr. Beck, who is the Americans' problem, not ours. I think the underlying concern of those Israelis who ventured out of their airconditioned shelters, both those seeking to protest and to support Beck, was not the man's message, or whatever effect, negligible at the most, he may have on the situation here, but how his presence here makes Israel look from the outside. Both sides, I fear, are sorely deluded.
The left is afraid that the hero's welcome afforded to Beck by the local political establishment will deliver yet another blow to Israel's international image and its relationship with America. They needn't worry. It's hard to imagine what else Benjamin Netanyahu could have done to alienate Barack Obama in his last visit to Washington, short of urinating on the White House welcome mat. The warm embrace by Netanyahu's ministers of the man who called the President of the United States a racist will hardly make things worse.
Israel remains America's ally, but no one has any illusions that its current government will be praying for a Republican victory next year. Anyway, we shouldn't be overly concerned by the people Netanyahu keeps company with. Pointless meetings with various personalities visiting Israel seem to be one of his main pastimes - next week, for example, he will be seeing with the European Union's foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton, for a meeting that will have no effect whatsoever on anything. The 17-year-old Canadian heartthrob Justin Bieber realized as much when he decided to cancel his own summit with Bibi during his April visit. Prime ministerial meetings just aren't all they're cracked up to be.
The far-right have taken Beck to their hearts, despite an inner revulsion at his Christian agenda, because they believe that somewhere out there are hidden millions of goyim who will understand and support us, if only someone shows them the way. There is something touching, and also rather pathetic about this yearning for a bit of love, but if Beck - who is too extreme even for Fox News - is their Great White Hope, their case is lost.
Israel's national obsession with "how the world sees us," the pathological fear of international delegitimization and the conviction that if we could only improve our hasbara the world would love us, are a poor substitute for a long overdue national debate on who or what Israel is anyway. Israelis have deluded themselves that popularity and acceptance is the solution to their problems - well, last year the country was finally accepted into the OECD, and this summer the middle class is in near-revolt because it doesn't feel it is sharing in the economic prosperity.
On the other hand, we still believe that the world hates us, the United Nation's voting record and the general coverage in the foreign media seem to confirm this feeling, but in reality, despite a few cancelations of rock concerts, Israel is far from being isolated in the world. Our problem is not what the world thinks of us, but that we don't know what to think of ourselves.
The belated argument over whether Israel should be a welfare state or an open-market economy is only one of the conundrums we still have to solve. Jewish or democratic? State or Synagogue? Occupiers or neighbors?
Glenn Beck certainly doesn't have the answers, but neither does Obama. All around us Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and Syrians are emerging from decades of dictatorship, with no idea or concept of what they mean as nations and societies. Good luck - we've been trying to figure that out for 63 years and are still clueless.
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