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Letter from Jerusalem: The center of the universe

Jared and Ivanka at the new US Embassy.

MAY 24, 2018 – Like that famous 1976 New Yorker illustration by Saul Steinberg that presented Manhattan as the over-large center of the world, those of us in Jerusalem usually have an inflated sense of our own significance in the universe. Then along come the events of the last couple weeks to totally justify that lofty self-importance.

In the course of a few days, Israel engaged Iran in tit-for-tat missile attacks in Syria, with Israel doubling down on the message that it was not going to permit Iran to establish a presence in the war-torn country from which to launch attacks. Of course, that didn’t stay in the headlines long, because that weekend, the annual pinnacle of glitz, the Eurovision Song Contest, took place in Portugal. Americans can’t understand it (unless you love Abba), but it’s a holy event on the Continent – Israel included.

And despite our PR woes and lack of good standing politically with many of the contestant countries, Israel walked away with its first victory since 1998 – courtesy of flamboyant Netta Barzilai and her #MeToo anthem “Toy,” complete with chicken movements and movements that had everybody imitating her from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin to every school kid in the country.

Netta’s triumphant return to Israel on May 14 coincided with two events, each of which on their own warranted across the top of the page headlines. The controversial ceremony marking the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem coincided with the Palestinian ‘March of Return’ in Gaza that left some 60 protesters dead at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces after they closed in on the border with Israel.

Israeli singer Netta Barzilai.

The Gazans, led by their Hamas leadership, had been staging the protests every Friday for five weeks, but chose to change the date to Monday to coincide with the embassy ceremony and with their annual commemoration of ‘Nakba’ – the day of catastrophe – marking the creation of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948.

That’s a lot for one little country to handle in one day. But then the media coverage complicated things even further. Visual split screens on cable news networks and in leading newspapers juxtaposed the shiny, happy Israelis and Americans, led by Netanyahu and Trump emissaries Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner respectively with scenes of violence from Gaza.

The desired message spread across the world was clear – Trump’s decision to move the embassy wreaked havoc in the region and innocent Palestinians were dying as a result of the callous and brutal Israelis.

The facile cause-effect syndrome was exemplified by The New York Daily News splashing a “Daddy’s Little Ghoul” headline aside a photo of a smiling Ivanka next to the Gazan dead. The New York Times simply headlined their story with “Israel kills 60 Palestinians.”

Of course, they managed to miss the crucial information that the protests were far from non-violent. Almost all of the dead were Hamas members who, if not confronted, were on their way into Israel for something far more sinister and deadly than having a cup of coffee.

Trump haters and Israel haters alike went wild, unable or unwilling to consider the nuances of both the embassy move and the Gaza riots.

Palestinians protest in Gaza.

When I entered the Facebook and Twitter minefield to correct a number of misinformed posters that the Palestinian protest had very little correlation to the embassy opening, I was vilified as ‘fundamentalist,’ ‘xenophobic’ and ‘twisted’ by normally intelligent American liberals who preferred name-calling to engagement.

I was taken aback at how their hatred of Trump – justified on so many levels without having to invent ‘trumped-up’ charges – automatically transferred to Israel.

The embassy move was 100 percent a sound decision – the old argument that the embassy can’t be moved until there is a peace agreement with the Palestinians has been proven to be a fallacy. But, like many moderates in Israel, I was also 100 percent embarrassed that it had to be implemented by Trump and had to turn off the TV in shame during the embassy ceremony at the glorification of the president and the evangelical Right.

The only thing that could wash away the bad taste was to join thousands of Israelis at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv that night to celebrate Netta’s Eurovision win and sing along as she performed “Toy” to the wildly cheering crowd.

On a day when Israel was indeed the center of the universe, and Israelis were squabbling over the army’s actions in Gaza and the embassy move in Jerusalem, the only universal truth was that Netta rocks.

Waking up the next morning with trepidation, Israelis wondered what headline-making news would be awaiting. Whatever it was, it would likely reinforce our view that Jerusalem is the center of the world.

David Brinn writes from Jerusalem. 

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