How Israel brought comic relief to Germany

By Benny Ziffer

Israel continues to export its No. 1 prestigious product to the world: a blockbuster show of internal debates, starring a changing cast of the most agonized intellectuals on the planet.

A great debacle happened there, in Germany. No matter how you slice it, Israel came out looking pretty idiotic in the affair involving the exclusion of history professor Rivka Feldhay from participation in a conference on academic freedom – an event that was supposed to have ended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week on a dignified and serious note.

Feldhay’s Israeli colleagues publicly rebuked Netanyahu in Merkel’s presence, at the opening of the conference, for excluding the professor because of her radical political opinions. Netanyahu found himself in the shoes of a reprimanded schoolboy explaining himself to the principal, while Merkel – who had to take upon herself the embarrassing role of mediating between him and the representatives of Israeli academia – ultimately decided to come down on the side of academia and made her guest look like a jerk when she urged the Israeli professors to give her warm regards to Prof. Feldhay.

Now, a few days later, all this seems to be pretty entertaining. For somehow it happens that Israel is going back to performing the comic function in Germany that used to be served by plays in Yiddish, in which ridiculous, small-town Jews were seen pulling at one another’s beards in a dispute over an egg laid on the Sabbath.

Someone, it seems, has noticed that there is quite an audience abroad for our domestic problems and internal arguments, especially in Europe. If this is indeed the case, why not organize things in an orderly way and stage live shows, with the participation of conscience-driven Israeli intellectuals who will tell the world about the injustices their country is doing to them, or to the Palestinians, or to all of the above. For the show to be believable, they can maybe bring along a real live intellectual as an example, so that the state can give him a slap in the face live and on the air. Then there will be a huge ruckus, which will prove that the show has succeeded beyond all expectations.

What’s important to remember is that Israel would not be successful at marketing itself to the world as a producer of intellectual controversies were it not so easy to seduce the agonized Israeli intellectual with free trips abroad and “all inclusive”-style weekends. I don’t know if that happened in this specific case, but that is how things usually happen. They come to one of these intellectuals and say to him: “Look, the prime minister is paying for your ticket to Germany and the hotel. You can say whatever you want against Israel. On the contrary: Don’t spare any criticism. It’s important to him to show the world that Israel is a unique country, which has an alive and kicking, divisive, agonizing academic elite.”

Were there still Israeli intellectuals cast in the mold of, say, the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz – who scorned dubious perks doled out by the establishment – a conference of the sort organized around the prime minister’s visit to Germany could not have happened. Indeed, let us think for a moment. If Prof. Feldhay actually holds radical views against military service in the territories, as was said, why did she agree in the first place to participate in a conference held in the context of an official visit by Netanyahu, the man under whose orders Gaza was pummeled less than a month ago? Wouldn’t it have been proper for her to have said “no”? And they same goes for her colleagues, who came out in her defense: Isn’t it more ethical not to agree to play the game from the outset?

Wonderful are the ways of Israeli radicalism. I remember the dithering of certain writers back when Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister. On the one hand, they loathed him. On the other hand, when they were given the Prime Minister’s Prize, they had to accept the sought-after award from his very hands. Some decided they would accept the award but not shake his hand, thereby allowing themselves to see themselves as persons of integrity, because the local radical in many cases likes to have his cake and eat it too. He both wants to accept perks from the establishment and to frown upon the person who grants them.

Thus, it seems the natural uncouthness of the common, garden-variety Israeli can also be found in the radical margins. The radical Israeli says to himself: “Why should I suffer only because I’m a radical? What am I, a sucker? They’re paying me to go to Germany and a hotel and free luxury meals? I’ll go, because if I don’t go they will take someone else, and why should he have a good time and not I?”

So, time after time, seemingly against all the odds, Israel continues to export its No. 1 prestigious product to the whole world: a blockbuster show of internal debates, starring a changing cast of the most nonconforming and agonized intellectuals on the planet. The show goes like this. Act I: They announce the closing of a department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where the radicalism of its lecturers has become anathema to the right-wing government, and at the same opportunity they also announce the intention of awarding university status to a college in the territories.

Act II: That same right-wing government organizes a conference in Germany on “The Fascist-ization of Israel” because, as noted, the existence of active protest from within Israel is the best possible advertisement for the state. And Act III: The world watches the slugfest and nods its head: Ja, eine Katastrophe! But at the same time, it shrugs its shoulders and says to itself: It’s impossible to come out sane from those Jews and their Talmudic arguments.

Therefore, I believe, when Angela Merkel climbed into bed that night after the incident with Prof. Feldhay, she turned to her husband and said: “Darling Joachim, my head is splitting. Do me a favor and bring me an aspirin and a glass of water.” I also have the feeling that upon his return from the kitchen, Joachim, trying to amuse his wife, opened a volume of the poems of Heinrich Heine and read aloud to her the long work “The Disputation.”

With acute sarcasm the poem depicts an argument of a sort similar to the one that had given Merkel a headache that day. In the work, set in medieval Spain, a polemic rages between a rabbi and a monk, before the eyes of a bored Spanish princess, who sums up the confrontation in the following unforgettable lines, which are wonderfully apt for our case here (in an English translation from the German by Charles Godfrey Leland ). She says:

Which is right … I know not.

But there’s one thing I can tell:

I am sure both monk and rabbi

Have a most offensive smell.


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