Israel’s 60th Anniversary:  Why are some people partying like it’s 1948?

Linda Mamoun

Posted May 11, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Israel’s 60th Anniversary:  Why are some people partying like it’s 1948?

By Linda Mamoun

Two weeks before Israel’s 60th anniversary the House and Senate voted unanimously to pass resolutions honoring “the founding of the modern State of Israel.” Before the House vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi weighed in on the deliberations saying, “I urge our colleagues to speak with one voice, and support this resolution recognizing the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel. In doing so, we not only commend Israel, we also bring luster to this House by associating ourselves with that great state of Israel.” To further commemorate Israeli independence, Pelosi reserved time through the month of June for a weekly series of floor speeches.

Israel Independence Day has been celebrated within Jewish communities in the United States since Israel was founded. Traditionally the celebrations were organized by synagogues or Hebrew schools. Children would sing Ha’Tikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and read scriptures on the Promised Land. But these days the anniversaries are geared toward the broader public, making headlines in places where there are large Jewish communities, but also in areas where one would be hard-pressed to find a single person identifying as Jewish. Not only are the anniversaries endorsed by celebrities and political committees (this year’s “National Committee” includes former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the three presidential frontrunners, and all living secretaries of state), but the organizers offer a dizzying array of festivities, requiring careful planning by those hoping to partake in all the revelry.

Israel’s Independence Day falls on May 8 this year, but in the US the festivities run from early April through the beginning of June. With all the events going on around the country, have you planned how you will celebrate Israeli independence?

Mark Your Calendar

If you really had your act together, you could have booked a trip to the Holy Land with Pastor John Hagee and his Christians United For Israel (CUFI) tour. During ten days in early April, the Celebrate Jerusalem Tour featured a Night to Honor Jerusalem, a Middle East Intelligence Briefing, a luncheon at the Jerusalem Convention Center, a Jerusalem Unity Rally Walk, and a “special CUFI salute” to Israel’s 60th anniversary. Best of all, you would have gotten to hear Hagee’s rallying speech, in which he announced his pledge of $6 million for Israeli causes (mostly settlement-related) and declared that ”Turning part or all of Jerusalem over to the Palestinians would be tantamount to turning it over to the Taliban.”

For those who don’t like to travel, not to worry. You can get a taste of Israel from the comfort of your own suburb. On May 18, jaunt on over to Dunwoody, just outside of Atlanta, where you can see all the major Israeli cities with the “re-creation” of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, the Negev, Sefat and Haifa. The Dunwoody events feature “interactive family activities, such as camel rides, rowing across the Dead Sea, and climbing Masada.”

In Beachwood, Ohio, party planners are encouraging revelers to “Take in the sights and sounds of Israel without leaving home!” Among other festivities, organizers have planned a faux Israeli marketplace, where shoppers can “wander displays of one-of-a-kind jewelry, crafts and artwork; smell the flowers; pick up a unique book; and enjoy family-friendly crafts, games, songs and dances.”

In April, homebodies in north Jersey could have seen West Englewood Avenue in Teaneck transformed into Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street, featuring “wonderful vendors, delicious food and fabulous music.”

If you’re not into sightseeing, don’t fret. You can celebrate in more traditional ways -with parades, marching bands and fireworks. To learn about festivals near you, sign up for Facebook’s “Party Like It’s 1948” group, or just google “Israel@60″ and the name of your town.

The Israel Hobby

There’s something for everyone. (And if you missed this year’s big events, it’s not too early to start planning for next year.)

If you’re a poetry or film buff, drop by an Israel@60 reading or film festival. If you’re a bookworm, join a 60th birthday book club. If you’re a cyclist, register for a 5k, 10k or 60k “Ride with Israel@60″ race.

If you like to pamper yourself, try Dead Sea Spa Days. If you’re an art lover, why not amble into an exhibit commemorating Israeli independence? If you’re a foodie, join the Israel@60 Mission, which offers a “food and wine tour of Israel culminating in a star-studded international leadership gathering.” If you prefer to cook your own Israeli delicacies, sign up for an Israel@60 pita-making or Israeli hors d’œuvre class.

Not into falafel? Other options beckon.

If you’re an American Idol addict, check out the results of the Israeli Idol Competition (part of a series of anniversary events in Ann Arbor). If The Amazing Race is more your thing, see who won the 2nd Annual Amazing Israel Race (a citywide treasure hunt in NYC to commemorate Israel’s 60th birthday.)

If you’d rather concentrate on learning a new language, launch a “Café Ivrit” club and commit to speaking 60 minutes of Hebrew each month to honor Israel’s 60-year history. If you’re a budding filmmaker, try your luck in the Israel@60 video contest. If you’re a famous blogger, well, you guessed it: Blog ’til you drop on (Or mark your personal blog with the Israel@60 icon.)

If music is what you live for, hopefully you saw the “60@60″ opening night gala at Radio City Music Hall on May 7. (60@60 is a “month-long musical celebration comprising 60 musical events across North America through June 1.”) If you’re a left coaster, drop by the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles on May 10 for the “Israel 60 At The Kodak” extravaganza. (The Los Angeles “mega-celebration” is a continuation of 60@60, but is also part of another series featuring “60 hours of live entertainment in and around L.A. culminating in an exclusive, star-studded concert.”)

Didn’t get your tickets on time? There are still other options.

If you’re an Indiana Jones-type, go on an Israel@60 archaeological dig, or watch one on video. If you’re more of an intellectual, sign up for a history course on the Israeli Declaration of Independence, or join other “mythbusters” in a class that promises to “break through the myths and get to the truth of Israel’s contributions to the world… technology, medicine, television, music and more.” (Light refreshments served.)

If all this sounds too tame, journey to the front lines with Volunteers for Israel where you’ll commemorate Israeli independence by working on special projects to support the IDF in northern and southern Israel.

With so much going on, you won’t even have time to wonder why we’re seeing such a proliferation of festivities.

The Sellabrations

In economic terms, you could say that Israel Independence Day has “market dominance.” When most people think of Israel Independence Day -if they contemplate it at all- they think of it in terms of Israel’s national narrative.

But in spite of all the festivities, Israel Independence Day may be losing some of its market share. Unable to market the brand to at least two demographics (Muslim and Arab Americans) and losing market share to a generation transformed by a deeper understanding of military occupation (whether in Palestine, Iraq or Tibet), a quality of desperation seems to underlie the latest efforts to sell the holiday.

While advocates of Israel Independence Day still market the holiday to the country as a whole, they’re increasingly turning to niche markets like health & wellness and adventure travel to achieve their main objective: market saturation.

But is it working?

According to Marc Ellis, a Jewish theologian and professor of American and Jewish Studies, the festivities that mark Israel’s anniversaries have little public support in the US, even in the Jewish community: “Look at what happened with Israel’s 50th. They planned a lot of things, but it just sort of fizzled. This is typically what happens.”

Ellis thinks the celebrations fizzle for a variety of reasons. First, despite the attempts to make it seem otherwise, Israel isn’t a top priority for most Americans, even Jewish Americans. Opinion polls, including one recently commissioned by a prominent Israel advocacy group, confirm this. (News flash for MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who recently surmised that Israel is the “one key concern” of Jewish voters.)

But Israel’s anniversaries fizzle for other reasons, as well. The most obvious is that many people don’t see much to celebrate. Blaring Kool & the Gang as loud as you can won’t block out the roar of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. And if the myriad celebrations have anything in common -aside from their glorification of Israel- it is that they all downplay the decades-long war. The party planners seem to think they can erase the image of Israel as it really is by evoking the Israel of legend and lore. (If you google “Israel” and “make the desert bloom” you’ll see how often they try.)

But the edifice of legend is cracking. M.J. Rosenberg, director of the Israel Policy Forum, recently wrote about the reluctance of young Jewish Americans to embrace the Israel of lore, saying in a newsletter that “The Internet generation is not into tired organizational talking points which mix facts and myths in equal measure.” Rosenberg argues that, “you can’t defend the occupation and sell Israel at the same time.”

For those trying to sell Israel to the public, opinion polls show that, while Americans tend to sympathize more with Israelis, most people believe that Israelis and Palestinians share the blame for their conflict -along with the United States. A BBC World Service Poll released in early April describes the American public as “nearly evenly divided” in their opinions on Israel. This doesn’t jibe with a narrative that casts Israelis as innocent transplants who got stuck in a bad neighborhood, but are thriving just the same.

The frenzy around Israel Independence Day can be seen as an attempt to freeze history back to 1948 when the public’s support of Israel was mostly unequivocal.

People vs. Projects

There is a new ethos now: If you feel for one side, you should feel for the other. Those who subscribe to this view condemn all violence. They put the needs of the people, Israelis and Palestinians, before everything else. You could call them the People-First Movement.

The advocates of this movement, many of whom are American Jews and Israelis, believe that the official Israeli story has to be outsold by a new narrative. This means, first, acknowledging all that happened in 1948, including al nakba: the organized killings of Palestinians, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages, and the expulsion of over seven hundred thousand Palestinians from their land. And it means looking at the US-backed occupation, and the fact that all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank live under the reach of Israeli military power.

The most striking thing about this movement is how grassroots it is. Although it has a growing DC contingent, the movement is comprised mainly of peace activists, faith-based organizations, and campus groups, which means it doesn’t get much attention from the press. Even so, it has certain people worried, and they have mounted a Herculean effort to regain control -with support from the political and religious establishment, evangelical Christian groups like CUFI and the Joshua Fund, lobbies like AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, and newer organizations like the Israel Project, the David Project, and the Solomon Project. You might well call this the Project-First Movement. And it has well-funded campus arms like Stand With Us, Campus Watch, and the Israel On Campus Coalition.

The Project-First Movement has begun to use niche marketing to attract narrower and narrower cross-sections of the American public. The goal is to enshrine ever more abstracted conceptions of Israel in the minds of key constituencies, increasingly on the right.

For these activists, the state of Israel -or at least its governing regime- comes first. And just as they direct many of their appeals to the most extreme right-wing constituencies in America, they are increasingly aligned with the most hawkish Israeli politicians.

The movement has a grassroots following (and history), but its core organizations tend to be centralized with munificent funding for PR. They administer surveys, conduct focus groups, implement dial testing, and do interviews to fine-tune their campaigns. This might explain why the PR initiatives behind Israel Independence Day tend to be sophisticated, even if their output seems relatively uninspired.

The Marketing Wars

There is a clear connection between public discourse and policy. Majority support of the status quo has to be maintained if Americans will continue to allow $3 billion of their tax dollars to be allocated annually to Israeli aid. (And up to $3 billion more in loan guarantees.) And what people hear about Israel, Palestine, and US policy in the region shapes how they think.

Public discourse affects policy in more indirect ways, as well. If the root causes of a conflict are obscured, or if one side is characterized as inherently violent, then efforts to negotiate a fair resolution are undermined. In a forthcoming book, Challenging Global Terrorism and American Neo-Conservatism, international law scholar Tom Farer writes that Israel “has championed the view that groups and governments employing terrorist means either have non-negotiable ends or should at least be treated as if they had them, the view that negotiations or even the examination of the substantive claims such groups make merely feeds the terrorist appetite.” The Project-First Movement promotes this narrative above all others, leaving pro-peace policy initiatives dead on arrival.

Although the Project-First Movement is succeeding on the political front, and probably will for the foreseeable future, the People-First Movement has been winning some of the most important narrative wars. In the IPF newsletter cited earlier, Rosenberg describes this trend within the Jewish community: “They are losing the campus battle big time….I’m talking about young opinion leaders who are turned off by the occupation and identify Israel with settlers there and neoconservatives like Feith, Perle, and Krauthammer here. They hate the paranoid style in which all dissent from the status quo is deemed anti-Israel or anti-Semitic and, generally, have no use for the mindless emotionalism and ethnic sentimentality that characterize so much of the organized pro-Israel community. As third or fourth generation Americans, they cannot be won over with scare tactics about the Holocaust or Ahmedinejad.”

For the Project-First Movement to prevail -within the Jewish community and in the broader society- it needs to succeed in two gargantuan tasks: it has to construct a narrative that perpetually glorifies Israel, and it has to block all counter-narratives so that even questioning its project is unthinkable.

For the People-First Movement to succeed, it has to achieve only one goal: to humanize the conflict. And this is how they do it:

Through events focused on local organizing, public education, and interfaith dialogue. The main orgs here are peace centers, student and faith-based groups, and indy media outlets.
Through non-violent campaigns to end the Israeli occupation and lift the siege of Gaza. These include everything from action alerts and petitions to boycott, divestment and sanctions initiatives to fact-finding tours and direct action in the West Bank and Gaza.
Through policy and media work by advocacy groups. A random list (pulled from my inbox) of different kinds of US-based groups includes the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace (and their MuzzleWatch and StopCaterpillar sites), Electronic Intifada, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, J Street, the American Task Force on Palestine, Americans for Peace Now, Al Awda, and SUSTAIN (Stop US Tax-funded Aid to Israel NOW).
In the last decade, there has been a surge of activism in the US, Canada and Europe. Omar Baddar, who works with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, explains that “Activism had died down in the 1990s due to the misconception that the ‘peace process’ was working and could achieve something. Once that fell through, and it became obvious that Israel was choosing illegal territorial expansion over peace with the Palestinians, people felt the need to get active on the issue again.” Baddar believes the movement is growing because it engages supporters “democratically and on many different levels.” The anniversary of Al Nakba on May 15 provides a focal point.

On its website, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation lists commemorations happening around the country. Just looking at the cities where I’ve lived, there has been a firestorm of activism: In Philadelphia, a coalition of groups organized “60 Days for 60 Years,” a series of events and actions to commemorate Al Nakba and mobilize support for ending the occupation. In New York, a group called “Jews Remember the Nakba” held a rally on May 7 outside the Israel@60 gala at Radio City Music Hall. New York peace activists will also converge on Dag Hammarskjöld Park (May 16) to commemorate Al Nakba. In Chicago, home to one of the largest Palestinian communities in the US, people will mark the anniversary at the Palestinian American National Conference from May 23 - 25. In Denver, activists organized a variety of educational and cultural events, which will conclude in a demonstration at the state Capitol on May 17.

Some anniversary events focus attention on specific campaigns like divestment initiatives targeting companies that are involved with the occupation, or ending the siege of Gaza. Several organizations planned cross-country speaking tours to coincide with the anniversary. I met Marc Ellis, the Jewish theologian referenced earlier, before a lecture on Jewish activism against the occupation. He was invited by Students for Justice in Palestine (University of Colorado) to take part in a commemoration of the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre.

The last group I’ll mention is an Israeli organization called Zochrot (which means “remembrance” in Hebrew). Its members post signs on the sites of Palestinian villages destroyed by the IDF and distribute maps identifying these sites. To commemorate the events of 1948, activists in Israel and the US have been displaying Zochrot’s maps to show how Palestinians have been cleansed from their land.

The Forecast

Sociologists look at holidays as a form of public ritual. Not only do holidays reflect a society’s values, but they serve to mold these values. With Israel Independence Day, we see a reflection of America’s strategic and cultural alliance with Israel. But we also see the outlines of a continuing military project: A campaign to sanitize Israel’s history and legitimize its aggression against the Palestinians.

On April 24, The Washington Post reported on the Bush Administration’s “secret” agreement with Israel to support settlement expansion in the West Bank. But it’s no secret that, even since the Annapolis talks in November, the Israeli government has authorized a surge of settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And it’s no secret that the US backs virtually all of Israel’s policies: its settlements and separation wall, its occupation and siege; policies that have strangled the Palestinian people and resulted in many lost lives on both sides. Because Project-First organizations promote these policies, and thwart people’s desire for peace, they’re essentially a movement without a people, representing the needs of no one but a narrow fringe of ideologues and PR professionals.

But the peace movement is growing, and it’s drawing support from people across the country who think that two safe and viable nations will best serve the Israeli and Palestinian people. Now that would truly be something to celebrate.

(Linda Mamoun is a writer and media critic. Her blog NewsWhacker highlights the best and the worst news coverage of the day. Linda is a member of the National Arab American Journalists Association and the Arab American Writers Group.)