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Happy Birthday, Knesset! And RIP to Israeli Democracy

B. Michael
B. Michael
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The Knesset in all its glory.
The Knesset in all its glory.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
B. Michael
B. Michael

Tu B’Shvat, new year’s day for the trees, is also the birthday of the Knesset. It was born on Tu B’Shvat in 1949, and just celebrated its 73rd birthday. And its age is showing. It is not aging particularly well, and its old age is putting its youth to shame (although hints of what the future would hold were already apparent back then).

It has had more than one home over its lifetime. From 1950-1966 it was headquartered in Froumine House in downtown Jerusalem, and from there it moved to its permanent abode on Givat Ram. Froumine House has been involved in numerous real estate adventures since it bade farewell to the parliament. And, typically for an Israeli real estate deal, it too has a gray financial cloud hovering over it. Perhaps we shall return to that sometime.

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Meanwhile, the building sits there all gloomy and deserted. The windows are broken, the doors are sealed, the bars are covered with decades worth of dust. Like other buildings whose fate has been sealed, it is wrapped in construction shrouds. These are decorated with a variety of distinguished posters and photographs from the past, graffiti, “historic” newspaper clippings and random slashes of color. A large sign announces that the Museum of the Knesset is being built here. A state institution that will praise and glorify the wonders of the Israeli parliament and Israeli democracy. There are also plenty of signs warning “Danger – Construction Site.” But no construction is going on here. No construction has been going on here for years.

I kept seeing the building sitting there looking so forlorn, and curiosity began to gnaw at me. As Tu B’Shvat approached, I decided to take a closer look: I put my eye up to the enclosure and peeked inside. Here was where the hall of the Israeli parliament once stood. Gevalt. A Gazan house after a visit from the Israeli air force would be an elegant Parisian salon next to the ruins that stared back at me. Broken pillars, wrecked walls, rusty iron pipes atop cracked tiles, electrical wires dangling from the ceiling, mounds of rubble on the floor. And an odor of dust and rot that wafted through the bars.

I felt a patriotic duty to be deeply saddened. But instead of sadness, I felt a tremendous surge of admiration. “Brilliant!” I whispered to myself. “Just brilliant!”

With zero budget, and with hardly any manpower, but only with the flash of a lofty idea and the generous aid of time and the elements, the people behind the Museum of the Knesset managed to create a most accurate and incisive profile of the Knesset of Israel circa 2022. Not of its appearance or history, but of its spirit, its ways, its culture and its current inhabitants: a place of sweaty and dusty shouting matches, whose foundations are wobbling, whose seams are coming unraveled, whose walls are peeling out of pure shame.

Most of its members are reckless and full of hot air, with “a finger in every pie.” Half are foolish Hasidim, half are pagans, half are scoundrels and half are hagglers (many of them fit in more than one half). Even the spirit exuded by the ruins of Froumine House is much more exalted than anything that comes out of their mouths at the Knesset podium. And the handful of worthy people who somehow ended up there have long been ground down into submission.

“Bravo,” I thought. “Fantastic. Just right. As it is now, Froumine House perfectly achieves its intended role.” You could open a box office right now and sell tickets. It would be a good place to bring schoolchildren and tourists, so they could learn about what we have now and what we can anticipate in the future. Must a museum only deal with the past? The present and future are more important.

So happy birthday, Knesset, and rest in peace, democracy. At last we’ve found the perfect place for you – in a museum. The same goes for tolerance, which in Jerusalem can also only be found in a museum.

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