A couple of years ago, I took an 80-year old relative from Italy on a tour of the Knesset. It was his first visit to the building and he obviously felt that the nation's parliament warranted special respect and arrived wearing a suit and tie. He was visibly disappointed. After a few minutes of passing through semi-dark corridors with pealing paint and stained carpets, peopled by slouching guards and casually dressed officials, he stopped, took off his tie, carefully folded and put in his pocket.
Arriving home, my mother asked him what he had thought. "It's not very impressive," he said, "But it's ours."
This is probably a pretty representative reaction of first-time visitors to the Knesset, especially those from countries with a tradition of awe-inspiring architecture and formal dress-codes. There's something about the squat, low building that defies all delusions of grandeur. Indeed the committee that selected architect Yosef Klarvin's design praised its "non-exaggerated dimensions."
In other words the Knesset was built to inspire respect rather than awe, and to remain accessible to its constituents.
Though current Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik has come under fire for her grandiose refurbishment plans, much of what she is doing was long overdue, especially the redecoration of the buildings' ageing interior. However, the dress code that she began to enforce this week at the start of the Winter Session is another matter.
Like it or not, Israel is not a sartorial nation. A few years ago, a New York manager arrived to head the Israel branch of a multinational corporation. His first action was to instruct all male employees to wear ties to work. The open derision he encountered quickly convinced him to quietly discard the order and affect himself a more casual mode of attire.
Last month, Prime Minister Olmert wanted to honor Shin Beit Chief Yuval Diskin for his organization's recent rate of success against terror operations. He asked Diskin to accompany him into a cabinet meeting in the full gaze of the TV cameras. The contrast between Olmert's elegant blue suit and Diskin's blue jeans couldn't have been sharper, but strangely, neither gave the impression of disrespect. One was dressed as a senior politician, the other just as any other Israeli professional.
Itzik's insistence that journalists, aides, officials and visitors not enter the Knesset wearing jeans will not improve the appearance of the building's habitués in any way, nor will it increase the parliament's self-respect.
Knesset members are elected by the people, from the people, and the building and its norms reflect this people's culture. Trying to impose a superficial and fundamentally non-Israeli dress-sense is doomed to failure.
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