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Acceptable in Polite Society (A Commentary Magazine Blog)

September 7, 2010

The German word Salonfähig doesn’t have a precise English translation. The closest English can do is something along the lines of “acceptable in polite society.” Salonfähig came to mind when I got my first look at the outrageous cover of this week’s Time magazine. Against a light blue background is a Star of David composed of white daisies. “Blue and white” brought to you by Time. But in the middle of the star, in stark black letters, lies the title of this week’s cover story: “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.”

Here we are in the middle of peace negotiations that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, insisted upon, and to which the president of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, had to be dragged, and Time writes about “why Israel doesn’t care about peace.” Is there no limit to the Israel-bashing that now passes for serious conversion in polite society?

The Web version of the story hardly even qualifies as journalism. It’s nothing more than a few sentences strung together, interspersed with links to a series of photographs.

The printed version, at least, has a thesis, and it’s not a bad one. Its claim is that Israelis don’t discuss the peace process much (true), that they have low expectations (true), and that they don’t care (also true). And why do Israelis not care?

Ah, here comes the rub. Part of the answer that Time offers is that Israelis have despaired of peace (though why that might be is never explicitly stated – Palestinian recalcitrance is never actually mentioned, like a dark family secret that everyone knows but that everyone hopes will go away if it doesn’t surface). Israelis have learned to build decent lives even in the face of the conflict, and the Palestinians are now a nuisance, not a strategic threat. That’s true, and a fair point.

But what about the rest of the answer that Time offers? Why are Israelis not more interested in the peace process? Money.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Jews are more interested in money than in peace. In four pages of text, the Israeli (Jewish) pre-occupation with real estate, startups, and high rises on the Ashkelon beaches is repeated again and again and again, like the refrain of a bad country song. “Newspapers print fewer pages of politics … and more pages of business news.” That’s news? How is that different from dozens of other papers throughout the world? It seems that this is important because now we’re talking about Jewish newspapers, and those stubborn Jews who “don’t care about peace” just print more and more pages of business news.

The Israeli economy is, indeed, doing well. And we Israelis have, indeed, built a good life for ourselves now that we’ve figured out how to squelch Palestinian terrorism, for the most part. And most us of would gladly sign a deal, if we could only be convinced that the West Bank won’t turn into Gaza and that a treaty would genuinely end the conflict. But by and large, we’re not convinced. The implication that Israelis are not overwhelmingly concerned about the peace process because we’re more interested in money is well … so stereotypical that it’s hard to believe that Time actually went that far. But that’s the world we live in. The line between Israel-bashing and Jew-baiting is so thin as to be nonexistent. And crossing the line is Salonfähig.

The editors at Time seem to have had a good time with this story. The first page of the article is a full-page photograph of an Israeli at the Tel Aviv beach. He’s got an enormous tattoo on his right arm (a Star of David, of course), dark sunglasses, and closely cropped hair. At first glance, he looks almost like a skinhead – and there’s an Israeli flag fluttering in the background. And then, the text starts by introducing us to Heli Itach, a real-estate agent. “The skull on her designer skirt is made of sequins that spell out ‘Love Kills Slowly.’” Which is relevant to the story because … because why?

Then, Heli speaks to the intrepid interviewer, Time’s correspondent. “You’re not client. I tell you the truth.” So she doesn’t speak English perfectly, and usually, she lies? (This is interesting, I assume, because in the rest of the world, real-estate agents regularly describe the properties in question perfectly objectively.)

And shortly later, still on the first page of text, we’re offered a comparison of life in secular Tel Aviv versus largely religious Jerusalem: “On a Saturday, when Jerusalem turns into a mausoleum in observance of the Jewish Sabbath,” Karl Vick writes. A mausoleum? Would any decent publication dare describe the quiet that descends over Arab villages and neighborhoods as people enter their homes to eat the post-Ramadan-fast meal as a “mausoleum”? Can one imagine a sentence describing some New Hampshire town on a Christmas Eve as “quiet and still like a mausoleum”? It’s unthinkable. But it’s not unthinkable to describe the capital city of the Jewish state, at a moment of quietude in observance of a several-thousand-year-old tradition, as a “mausoleum.” Dead. Rotting. AndSalonfähig again.

The worst, though, is still the cover. Across bookstore and airports this week, Time’s cover will scream to those who (wisely) do not read the story that it’s Israel, and Israelis, who simply don’t care about peace. It’s a setup, of course. Because these talks are likely to stall, and then to fail. And Time has already predicted whose fault that will be.

Will anyone react to this story? One certainly hopes so. There’s a line in the Rosh HaShannah liturgy, which many Jews will recite in just a few days, that reads tein kavod le-amekha, roughly translated as “restore some dignity to Your people.” It’s going to take more than prayer to do that, though, and more than a silent shaking of the head. Time will tell (no pun intended) whether Time’s decent readers will make it clear that they have had more than enough, that even today, even with appallingly low standards to which we have become accustomed, not everything is Salonfähig.

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