Arts & Culture

The Lame Duck in Israel

Jerusalem has never seemed so American. By chance, my first trip since living here two years ago coincides with President Bush's second trip in the last six months. And so the capital city is in lockdown: buses rerouted, streets closed, … Read More

By / May 29, 2008

Jerusalem has never seemed so American. By chance, my first trip since living here two years ago coincides with President Bush's second trip in the last six months. And so the capital city is in lockdown: buses rerouted, streets closed, and cops every ten meters or so. Your tax dollars even paid for renting out the entire King David Hotel for the POTUS and his team.

But it's not just the conspicuous inconvenience of the President's visit: it's Jerusalem itself. The city has always been filled with American tourists, students, and immigrants. But increasingly, Jerusalem is an American city in more and deeper ways.

First, it's grown incredibly classist. No pioneering socialism here; the center of town is now halfway through its conversion process to the Upper East Side of Israel (complete with the ghost town feel in the off season). The hulking Hilton hotel, once a white elephant, is now met by the rising Jerusalem Palace, King David Residences, Mamila project, and a new high-end pedestrian mall, all of which are priced beyond all but the wealthiest of Israelis. This is Jerusalem's new rich-folks neighborhood — greater Yemin Moshe, if you like. I wonder if it'll eventually be gated.

Strolling along that mall, filled with empty boutiques waiting for their Jewish American Princesses to come, I felt like one of those irritating New Yorkers who complains about the bad old days of Times Square. After all, I can't really complain about this macro-economic plan for Jerusalem's development. This is valuable real estate, and if rich jerks from Westchester are willing to plonk down a mil or two for an apartment, my Zionist self is all for it. But it's sad to see the stratification of Israel/America so starkly depicted, right next to the Old City Walls.

Second, Jerusalem has grown even more like Disneyland. Crawling with Birthright kids and UJA missionaries, it's rapidly becoming an entirely ersatz city. The real Jerusalemites are in Malha at the mall, the Americans on Ben Yehuda. The real Jerusalemites gather in little shtiebels, the Americans in the Old City. Even the shuk now feels somehow pre-packaged, like the Olde Townes and Harbor Villages back home. Meanwhile, the real cultural creatives have fled, as secular Jerusalem dwindles to a mere simulacrum of a culture in the face of Haredi power, foreign-fueled rent hikes, and American fakery. The Palestinians, of course, are more invisible than ever; no politics intrudes on the fantasy of homeland.

Third, and relatedly, Jerusalem increasingly shares the Bush-era predilection for oppressing and radicalizing enemies, rather than engaging with them. Two weeks ago, Bush implicitly likened Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain, saying that talking with Hamas was like appeasing the Nazis in 1939. This is, of course, outrageous, a poor update of the reductio ad hitlerum argument. Given the reality of Jewish (and wider) racism and anti-Islamism, I'd even say it's close to race baiting.

But as political philosophy, it's vintage Bush. The world is made up of good guys and evildoers. You don't talk to evildoers, and you don't care what they think, because they're evil. So, go ahead and prosecute your outrageous war strategy, evince endless arrogance, and talk a rhetoric only slightly less deluded than that of the Chinese. It doesn't matter, because the evildoers are already evil. Moreover, those of us who dare to suggest that maybe the world isn't so clear cut — we're appeasers, weak, and naive.

Post-wall Israel is increasingly similar. I don't know if Prime Minister Olmert is the latest Yitzhak Shamir, feigning a peace process while stalling for time, or whether he's sincere in his talk for peace. Politically, Israel has continued to stick it to the Palestinians, and damn the consequences. The Israeli government has grown dependent on Bush's blank-check policy — which perhaps explains why they're so terrified of Obama. They've avoided making difficult choices, because no one's making them do so.

Worse than that, rich American right-wingers are distorting Israeli politics by massively funding conservative politicians. These Americans have a Birthright-style fantasy of Israel, the holy land, the only democracy in the Middle East, etc. They stay in the big hotels and take tours of archeological sites. And then they give millions to right wing politicians who maintain the fantasy and refuse any compromise with the three million people living in maybe-one-day-Palestine. "We" — by which I mean Americans — are undermining the real Israel in order to preserve the fantasy one.

Bush's non-engagement policy works, somewhat, if you're a superpower — although the last seven years have surely been the most destructive to American interests in the last century at least. But if you're Israel, it's a disaster. The world is not simply standing by while Israel builds more settlements; many people are increasingly infuriated, with rhetoric that boils over into antisemitism at its worst.

Of course, Bush would say you can't run around trying to please people. You have to be strong, and do what's right. But when your friends stop being your friends, you'd have to be stubborn and foolish not to take their desertion seriously. Which, well….

All these elements — the class stratification, the delusion, and the know-nothing/doubt-nothing policy — are part of the same Ugly American arrogance that has made us so reviled in so many parts of the world today. We just get fatter and fatter, richer and richer, meaner and meaner. Damn the consequences, we'll have our SUVs, gated communities, stratified health care system, and imperialist foreign policy. We're Americans and we like things big, dammit. Big, vulgar, and mean.

But the consequences are real. It's just not true that large swaths people have always been and will always be anti-American;only someone as provincial as Bush could believe that. Public opinion is mutable — not entirely, but somewhat. Likewise, though large swaths of people have always been anti-Israel and antisemitic to some degree, it is just that: a matter of degree. In all cases, the degrees have been increasing lately. We can damn the consequences, but they might just damn us back.

I love Israel, and love Jerusalem, despite it all. I love my favorite field, love the kosher restaurants, I even love the Kotel. But as Bush swaggers through his last months in office, and the political campaign begins in earnest, I worry that play-attending, latte-drinking, Prius-driving Obama voters like me might be more marginalized than ever by oligarchs masquerading as populists. People like Bush do have the simple answers. They just happen to be wrong.

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