Netanyahu's Residence and the Triumph of Bad Taste

What did we learn from this week's clip of the Netanyahus' house? That Israeliness has become irrevocably identified with tastelessness, clutter, ugliness and disrespect for the past.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Illustration by Eran Wolkowski
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

A couple of weeks ago, I was a guest of Mrs. Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, and I wrote an article about the visit, which cost me thousands of invectives and a similar number of recommendations to admit myself to a psychiatric hospital.

In the week after I published the article, unrestrained women and men confronted me in the street, pointed to me with hostility and told me I was irritating. I met these attacks heroically, because I felt that I had ultimately done a good deed, by trying to soften, at least by a little, the monstrous image that has become associated with Sara Netanyahu. Not in order to gain favor with her or to help her husband win the election, but from a simple journalistic duty to relate what I saw with my own eyes.

With my tour of the Prime Minister’s Residence, in the company of Mrs. Netanyahu, still fresh in my memory, I was seized with embarrassment, perhaps even horror, at a video clip that was part of a Facebook post from the prime minister, which became the talk of the town this week. In it, an interior designer named Moshe Galamin is seen taking almost the exact same tour I took in the company of the prime minister’s wife. The point of the clip was utterly transparent: to show the building’s state of neglect and thereby refute the rumors of the alleged life of luxury led by the Netanyahus.

The physical condition of the Prime Minister’s Residence is indeed disgraceful, as the clip showed, and as I had seen with my own eyes a couple of weeks earlier. I also told the prime minister’s wife of my amazement over the appearance of the guest wing. Naturally, I did not express myself in the cheap bombastic style of the video clip. A cheap style is altogether unworthy for a journalist, not to mention an interior designer. If the bombastic extroversion that he used in the footage reflects his design style, the last thing I would wish him to do is give the prime minister’s wife design ideas.

On the face of it, the video aimed to cast the Netanyahus in a favorable light, but the impression it left was above all one of a total lack of respect for the significant institution of the premiership – irrespective of the specific person who occupies it. From this point of view, it makes no difference if it was a campaign clip commissioned by the Netanyahu family: It completely missed its target. What lingers in the viewer’s memory is the cartoonish behavior of the guest, his sycophancy and his repeated outcries of astonishment.

What we saw was colossal and scandalous disrespect for the institution of the prime minister because this building, antiquated as it may be, houses memories and history and ghosts of the past. That was my feeling when I was ushered in: that here, in this tattered living room and this antiquated dining room, sat Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, to mention the names of only two late prime ministers who resided here.

It’s true that it’s not the Versailles Palace, but on the other hand, the Versailles Palace itself would not be the Versailles Palace were it not for those who lived and walked inside its walls, and had it not been designed by artists with a sense of proportion who internalized the idea of the symbolism that pervades a ruler’s residence.

That symbolism was lost in the videoed penetration of the house in question. Suddenly it was apparent to every citizen who saw the clip that the Prime Minister’s Residence is no more than the sum total of the walls and doors and carpets and furniture that the premier and his family members make use of. And the place’s whole unseen and spiritual and implied aspect was trampled underfoot in the name of some contemporary design utilitarianism.

I do not say this out of nostalgia, and no one expects the prime minister to live in a nostalgic building. On the contrary: I feel a modicum of pity for the prime minister and his family, who are compelled to spend some of their time in this cluttered, ugly building. But at the same time, I am concerned at the chronic tastelessness that clones itself at a geometric rate in this country on the part of people of good intentions who want to fix what should not be fixed.

Just look at what was done to this private Jerusalem mansion from the 1930s, designed by Richard Kaufmann, one of the greatest of the British Mandate-era architects. The building’s original look has been vitiated by monstrous additions made for security purposes. Floors were added and the patio – perhaps the most original part of the building – was closed off with a transparent roof that annuls the whole concept of a patio. Clutter upon clutter. The essence of the Israeli anti-aesthetic aesthetic.

Obviously, some architect or interior designer was responsible for each element of the clutter – someone who came, as Moshe Galamin did this week, and informed the tenants about the terrible defects and the outmodedness of their home. Those architects and interior designers from the past undoubtedly promised, each in his turn, to make the house modern and comfortable. And now our eyes see the results wrought by all these well-intentioned people: For on a foundation of clutter all one can do is add more clutter, which becomes prematurely outmoded and again lends the house the look of a ruin.

What, then, can we learn from the Galamin clip, which went viral? Far more than its narrow political message, what emanates from it is a brutal aesthetic message: that Israeliness has become so identified with tastelessness and clutter and ugliness and disrespect for the past, that the more we try to escape them, the more they will pursue us, and the more we try to fix things, the more we will spoil them. Another attempt at redesign will no longer change anything. This battle for good taste seems to have been decided already.

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