One Thing Ahmadinejad Got Right

Eyal Megged
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Eyal Megged

Our bitter enemy is right - the Israelis are an uncultured nation. Even when we gather in our sukkot, and a divine light illuminates us, and perhaps especially at such an hour of desire - or even more so, in the satisfaction of our desires - it would do well to to admit that the Iranian president was correct: There is no nation on earth where the art of living is so impoverished. In the most remote village in Iran, one can safely say, there is a richer art of living than here.

During my childhood, way back in the 1950s, people tended to attribute the lack of culture to the waves of immigration, the melting pot that was burning at that time with all its force. Time is needed, they would explain, to melt together all the cultures that were gathered in from the corners of the earth into one solidified culture. But time, it turns out, did not make us cultured but just the opposite. The melting process continued unabated but the culture was thrown out into the garbage can. The crossbreeding of the poverty-stricken East European shtetl with the Middle Eastern Jewish-Arabic culture, the ethnic mix we were so proud of, did not create a new Hebrew culture as we hoped, but rather a unique subculture: one of trashiness. In other words, one of no culture at all.

You can say we have outstanding music and brilliant science and that Hebrew literature has won a name for itself - on the face of it, all the indications of culture. But that is not what we are talking about. We're talking about the art of living. The most primitive nation can feature a highly advanced art of living while the most progressive nation can feature a retarded one.

What actually is the art of living? Maybe, first and foremost, standards of behavior. Living according to traditions. Sanctifying society's rules. We have neither traditions nor rules. We, meaning the secular population. There is the religious world, which is so vastly different. The ultra-Orthodox of course have habits and codes, but woe to those habits and to those codes of the dark ages. The kibbutzim tried to find replacements for them - but what has become of the kibbutzim?

What is left for the secular population is a culture of consumption - that is, a culture of gluttony. The ultra-Orthodox don't join in this festivity perhaps because most of them are miserably poor. The Israeliness that was once, justifiably or not, identified with simplicity and asceticism has become synonymous with a subculture of indulgence and hedonism. Were this hedonism at least refined, we could withhold judgment, but the Israeli hedonism is indiscriminate. All appetite and no style.

In what is supposed to be the pearl of Mount Carmel, Zichron Yaakov, I recently came across a sign reading "Scents of Provence," announcing a luxurious new residential neighborhood. It gave off no such perfume. Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood, which was the home of the great author Agnon, recently added on a residential project named Arnona Heights, which will no doubt be a source of pride for the eternal city.

You may say it's a lack of taste. But it is not merely that. The roots go deeper. It is an expression of a lack of culture. Those who market the product know just what their clients need. It's what we can call "artificial." In truth, it is embarrassing. But the word "embarrassing" is slowly disappearing, together with the embarrassment itself. Perhaps the disappearance of embarrassment means the disappearance of the art of living. Or perhaps the reverse.

At the end of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Benjamin Netanyahu defiantly spelled out the noble qualities of Israel that, in his opinion, could be measured by the standards of the prophets. Morals, benevolence and compassion slid off his tongue like butter. And the masses listened and believed. It is hard to comprehend just how far off words can be from the truth. But then our bitter enemy went up to speak and he brought us back to the truth, in all its nakedness.