The Karnit Flug Fairy Story: Cinderella at the Central Bank

History teaches us that public figures who enjoyed great initial popularity are the first ones the masses tire of.

“Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed,” said our friend, the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Similarly, the garment bag coveted by the former candidate for Bank of Israel governor, Jacob Frenkel − had he lawfully paid for it at the duty-free shop in Hong Kong at the time, the whole face of this past week would have looked so different.

For we would not have been privileged to experience a great thrill at the sudden emergence from anonymity of the bureaucrat Karnit Flug and her appointment as bank governor − instead of the aforementioned Jacob Frenkel, and instead of another candidate who was nixed because of suspicions that had best not be mentioned.

How many of us can really judge whether her appointment as governor is a worthy one? The answer is: very few. Hence, there can be no rational reason for the great public excitement surrounding the news of her appointment.

What, then, is the meaning of this strange ecstasy that swept the headlines on Sunday and Monday ‏(and, but for the municipal elections, might have continued to this very day‏)? I see it as part of the general delight at the capriciousness with which the state’s affairs are managed nowadays. Someone in some corridor groped a woman, and hey − presto, like in a game of dice, the whole game changes. A bag at the Hong Kong airport, and presto, the game changes. What fun it is to discover that life can be a game.

In a world motivated by rational considerations, such abruptness ought to concern rather than excite us. But what can you do when the opiate the masses are addicted to today, aside from religion, is a yearning to be told fairy tales? Fairy tales about success and glamour and fame. About croaking frogs that undergo a miracle and turn into beautiful princes on “A Star is Born.” About vulgar nothings whose vulgar nothingness suddenly turns out to find favor on “Big Brother.” And if all that is so, then why not weave a fairy tale about a humdrum government official whose foot turns out to fit perfectly into the delicate glass slipper of bank governor?

What nonsense you spout, readers of these lines will say. All in all, Karnit Flug is a serious professional, whose name was previously brought up as a candidate for the post of governor of the central bank. This is nothing like the Cinderella story you are trying to foist on us over her appointment. Well, I would be inclined to accept that claim if I had not become slightly acquainted, in the course of my academic career, with the studies of those known as the Russian formalists, who back in their day mapped the relatively limited repertoire of templates upon which folk tales were elaborated.

One of the commonplace templates, for example, is that of a contest in which the eldest brother fails, and then the middle one does − but the youngest brother, the little one who ostensibly never stood a chance, wins wealth and happiness, and the king’s daughter.

The tale of Puss in Boots is built on this basic triple model. In other words: three rivals, with the ultimate winner being the one who was seemingly the weakest. The same goes for Cinderella, where no matter how the two elder sisters push the poor girl into a corner, she − the third sister, the one who was rejected − ends up being the one the prince notices.

The structure of the story about Flug’s appointment as Bank of Israel governor is so similar generically to this fairy tale model that you would have to be blind not to see it. Just like in fairy tales, she, the youngest sister, waits quietly in the corner, until it is time for her to be discovered, after the two elder siblings have failed the contest. The king’s son ‏(i.e., Netanyahu‏), who completely ignored her until now, suddenly discovers that she is actually the right one to follow in Stanley Fischer’s footsteps, after her two predecessors in the contest tried in vain to fit their clumsy feet into his shoes.

But even if it is not a perfect match, one thing is worth pointing out: Whoever thinks that choosing a woman for the post of governor under these circumstances can advance the status of women in Israel, or contribute anything to greater enlightenment in our society, is wrong. On the contrary: This Cinderella-like manner of selection only bolsters the unbusinesslike, unserious, and hence also undemocratic atmosphere in which the masses are encouraged to think that the distribution of key positions in public administration is a reality show − where what counts are the blunders that caused so-and-so to lose sympathy points with the judges in the competition, compared to another so-and-so, whom they still like. And if the winner of the competition is a woman, then it’s doubly joyful, because “she deserves it.”

And another thing worth remembering: The people are addicted to fairy tales of a meteoric rise from anonymity to fame and success. But they are no less enamored of the opposite kind of story: of falling from the heights of fame to rock bottom. Happily for them, narrative material in this genre is plentiful: a president convicted of crimes, tycoons who go bankrupt, public figures who transgress.

History also teaches us that public figures who enjoyed great popularity are the first ones the masses tire of. And that is not surprising, because the masses want to be charmed by new magic tricks.

So be warned, Karnit Flug: The day is not far off when all those who are enthusiastic now will begin to get bored. Put a spoke in your wheel, look everywhere for reasons to be replaced. The longer they do not find a reason to stick the knife in, the greater the hatred will grow. In days to come, you will pray that they will catch you carrying some garment bag, just to have it over with. 

Eran Wolkowski