Editor’s Notes: Love Israel tender

By David Horovitz May 13, 2005

In downtown Jerusalem on Wednesday night, as in parks and public squares and at community centers nationwide throughout Independence Day, we came together with more confidence and harmony than for years

Elvis is limbering up on Rehov Luncz. Almost two stories high, with massive white hands on the end of what look like vacuum-cleaner extension tubes, clad in a red velvet suit that has seen better days, he is swinging his oversized hips and curling his oversized lips to the opening strains of ‘Love Me Tender’ just off the main Ben-Yehuda midrahov – the Jerusalem outdoor pedestrian mall.

He looks ungainly and near-impossible to control. But when a knot of teenage boys, their own hair slicked back a la Elvis, start mimicking his dance moves a tad too close to those huge hands, the King’s three expert puppet-masters prove dexterous enough to deliver a gentle cuff on the ear to the most boisterous of the youths – to huge applause from a swelling crowd.

It’s the eve of Independence Day No. 57 in downtown Jerusalem and, in contrast to years 53, 54, 55 and 56, the city has come out en masse to party. Presley’s inimitable tones and gargantuan anatomy draw an adoring audience that spills out of Luncz onto Ben-Yehuda, which is already overflowing with glittering human traffic. Glittering because this year’s hit are the pins and brooches which twinkle rapidly on and off, turning those who wear them on their clothes, or attached by magnets to various body parts, into mobile fairy-light displays.

The little lights have been sold for a few years now, but this year the buyers are out in bigger numbers, also snapping up oversized plastic hammers and inflatable baseball bats in patriotic blue-and-white, nonchalantly thwacking passers-by in best, bizarre Yom Ha’atzmaut tradition.

I realize that my kids – the eldest is 12 – have never registered happy crowds of this size in the central Ben-Yehuda-Jaffa-King George triangle before. For the last few years, many terrorism-wary locals have been too cautious to congregate at so obvious a bomber’s target. And as for foreign tourists, well, they haven’t been near the place.

But they’re here, too, tonight, the overseas visitors, many of them striding the empowering, forward-looking final leg of a trip that began last week with the March of the Living at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

And they bring another experience unfamiliar to my (blond) children. Time and again the kids are stopped by flag-draped American Zionists cheerfully asking them where they’re from in the US, and by Israelis asking the same thing – both groups delightedly disbelieving when the kids explain that, no, they’re Israelis, Jerusalemites. Until recently, except during the brief tourism influxes around Pessah and Succot, no Israeli doubted that pretty much anyone encountered here was living in the country permanently, however Californian they may have looked.

That Jerusalem was coming out to play again after years indoors was evident just a few weeks ago at Pessah, when families who had flocked to the Botanical Gardens in Nayot found they had to park as far away as the Malha shopping mall. But on Wednesday night the city positively overflowed – in a celebration, more than anything, of survival.

Is it over, the terrorism? Almost certainly not. But there’s a relative respite, and a battered city proved determined to enjoy it.

At the bottom of Ben-Yehuda, the inimitable David Broza was extracting an improbable range of percussive sounds from the back of his guitar and the insides of his teeth to complement his wonderful Israeli-Spanish melodies. At the top, up past giant Elvis, a wild accordion and fiddle band was jigging through ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ and what sounded like a series of Irish drinking songs. Further off, on Jaffa Road, Israeli folk tunes competed with North African drumming. And everywhere the music reached, people danced and hammered and twinkled.

External threats apart, this Independence Day finds Israel a divided nation in too many ways. Divided in our assessments of how best to separate from the Palestinians. Divided between secular Judaism and Orthodoxy – between those who believe we survive here thanks to our strength and strategizing, and those who ridicule the arrogance of that notion and place their faith in heaven. Divided financially, the old Ashkenazi-Sephardi split now superseded to some extent by the rift between those who have benefited from Binyamin Netanyahu’s economic revolution and those who, thus far at least, are suffering from it.

We are even divided between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, geographically and philosophically.

Our capital is emblematic of our history, our spirituality, our religion, welcoming residents and visitors with the mayor’s neon notice-board reminder of when to light our Shabbat candles. It is also rapidly becoming a city overwhelmingly of Arabs and Orthodox Jews, with ever-fewer non-observant Israelis, too much garbage in tiny parks and too few job opportunities.

And Tel Aviv is the symbol of our Israeli rather than our Jewish nationhood, with its thriving financial, fashion, advertising and other service industries, its ‘Blade Runner’ skyscraper architecture, its foreign-worker underclass, its secularism.

In Tel Aviv, the national flag was flying proud and patriotic from many cars this Independence Day. In Jerusalem, those flags often also bore the narrow orange ribbon that signifies support for Gaza’s settlers. That particular difference underlines that we are on the threshold of a traumatic, unpredictable summer.

The heads of the IDF and the Shin Bet, Moshe Ya’alon and Avi Dichter, are departing. Their successors will have to oversee disengagement and its repercussions, carried out amid internal Jewish friction and with a Palestinian leadership apparently incapable or unwilling to confront both terrorism and its own corruption – and thereby sacrificing its future, and our stability, to the murderous Hamas.

As our president, Moshe Katsav, noted on Thursday, we are a people split in our perception of how best to guarantee our future here, but united in the aspiration to do so.

Katsav added that our challenge, arguably more acute this Independence Day than in many years past, is to respect those different perceptions, keep the argument civilized and never lose track of that shared goal.

In downtown Jerusalem on Wednesday night, as in parks and public squares and at community centers nationwide throughout Independence Day, we came together with more confidence and harmony than for years. My Independence Day wish? That we maintain the spirit.

Or as the tottering crooner just off Ben-Yehuda would have put it, that we love this country tender, ‘through all the years, till the end of time.’

Happy birthday, Israel. Elvis has left the midrahov.

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