illustration Tzipi Livni
Illustration Photo by Eran Wolkowski
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In 1959, when I was in second grade, I had the honor of appearing on the list of the most influential individuals in my field. But because of the inadequacy of the media in those distant days, I did not get as much publicity as Kadima party head MK Tzipi Livni and Israel Museum director James Snyder got this week, when they were told they have been included on the lists of the most influential individuals in their respective fields.

In my case, the story was that we found a decrepit bicycle with missing pedals in a junk heap at the corner of Pinkas and Bodenheimer Streets in Tel Aviv. Our mission was to get the bike to behave like a racing car. To accomplish this, we chose a steep slope meant for pedestrians that had been paved between Smuts Street and Pinkas, at the bottom of which were thick column-like barriers to prevent cars from entering. We had to maneuver the crooked wheels to prevent crashing into the columns. Once, twice, it worked - and I won applause and kudos from my playmates. The third time, I got a blow on the head from one of the barriers. To this day, I remember this as a bitter lesson about why it's not worth it to be considered a "most influential" person.

Enter the word "most" in Google and you will access an endless list of all the people who have ever had the honor of being "the most influential," the "most affluent" or "the most beautiful," and who then faded away without leaving their mark on anything.

The case of Tzipi Livni, who has made it into Newsweek's list of the 150 most influential women in the world, is particularly funny. After all, if she really were such an influential woman, how come she wasn't able to influence President Shimon Peres to choose her to form a government after the last election, instead of leaving the arena open to her rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now our prime minister, and to Ehud Barak, our defense minister?

This goes to show it all depends on whom you ask: If you ask me and another several million Israelis, Livni appears to be one of the least influential, least original and most untalented women ever to have led the opposition. "Idiots," the person who compiles the most influential lists for Newsweek would reply to such a viewpoint. "Who's even asking you whether she influences policy in your teeny-weeny Israel? From our perspective, it's enough that she influences us! She influences us to get all excited by the very fact that a woman was capable of wangling her way into politics in your primitive corner of the earth."

This is because what enchants the writers of the "most influential" lists, and the readers of those lists who get all excited by them, is the myth of success itself. In the same way - though of course this is entirely different - an important international survey once chose to anoint Adolf Hitler the most influential person in history. Truth be told, he was influential, big-time.

Nevertheless, with all the reservations, every time an Israeli personality, or an Israeli institution, is chosen for one of these international lists of influentials, we momentarily rejoice. Each and every one of us suddenly feels we have a share in this international success story because of the very fact that we are distant relatives, in the national sense, of the person who has been anointed. "Apparently there really is something in this business of the Jewish genius," we tell one another. "It's a fact that many more Jews and Israelis are successful in this world than, say, Arabs or Latvians or Icelanders."

Let's take Israel Museum director James Snyder who, on the same day that Livni was identified as being one of the 150 most influential women in the world, was informed by a French art magazine that he was among the 50 most influential people in the world of art. Snyder, too, is a sterling example of the myth of success: He was given one of the most fascinating museums in the world, and he transformed it into a modern shopping mall with escalators, which provides visitors with a not-too-cumbersome cultural experience.

The exhibits are for the most part the same exhibits, but what counts these days is the power of the experience afforded by the "environmental design" of a space, whether in your bathroom or the national museum. Thus, many of the visitors to the museum pass in front of the exhibits without understanding a thing about them. But thanks to the environmental design, they feel a lot more at home and a lot less frustrated by their ignorance.

It was the French art magazine Le Journal des Arts that selected Snyder as the 46th most influential on its list of 100. At the top of the list is Larry Gagosian, an art dealer who owns a prominent chain of galleries in America. The question then arises whether these magazines have gained influence because they choose influential people who, for their part, swell with joy because a very influential magazine has chosen them, and then they, in turn, influence the magazine that has chosen them as influential.

So as I've said, if out there in the world they think these influential people of ours are so wonderful, how come we haven't yet noticed that?