Israel’s 60th Birthday

Israelis in no mood to celebrate 60th anniversary by Dave
April 10, 2008, 9:33 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Israelis are in no mood to celebrate the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Not that theres anything wrong with celebrating – they’re just a little depressed that they’ve not crushed the Arabs as much or as efficiently as they think they could have. From the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times.

When the government of Israel budgeted about $28 million to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state, it was probably hoping that its fractious citizens would set aside their troubles and come together in an outpouring of national pride.

But a month before Independence Day, Israelis are wrangling over how flamboyantly the country should celebrate, and at what cost.

Many acknowledge the state’s outstanding achievements, pointing to the absorption of immigrants, its high-tech boom and Israel’s very survival against unfavorable odds.

But the nation seems to be in an uncharacteristically somber mood, with many Israelis evincing deep disillusionment with their leadership and the way the country is run.

“Our protest is against the problematic order of priorities of the government,” said Ron Avni, a leader of those who are opposed to excessive celebrations. “First, let them find the budget for all the things that the country needs.”

Avni, an expert on earthquakes and a university comptroller, started an online petition in January with another academic calling for public spending on the 60th anniversary to be limited to that of a normal year. They argued that money should not be wasted on “festivities whose primary purpose is to give a stage to the politicians.”

They were aiming for 10,000 names; by this month more than 90,000 Israelis had signed the petition.

Opinion polls back up the notion that a majority of Israelis would prefer a modest celebration, with any additional money spent on things like education and health.

Mindful of such sensitivities, when the 60th anniversary team unveiled its proposals Sunday it said that at least 35 percent of the budget would be spent on educational, infrastructure and remembrance projects.

The plans include the creation of 60 picnic spots with access for the disabled, the completion of a footpath around the Sea of Galilee and the inauguration of a trans-Israel bicycle trail. Schoolchildren will hike to Jerusalem in the footsteps of the fighters from 1948, and 60 memorials of that war will be spruced up and adopted and maintained by local youth.

The actual festivities, from May 7 to 9, are scheduled to include a sound-and-light show to be staged simultaneously in eight locations, from Tiberias to Eilat, free-entry beach parties and a larger-than-usual air force and naval display, accounting for about 20 percent of the budget.

In some ways, this anniversary, whose official theme is “strengthening Israel’s children,” falls at an unfortunate time. A report in February by the National Insurance Institute indicated that every third Israeli child lives in poverty – despite a flourishing economy – and more people are working but remaining poor.

The academic year started with high school teachers going on strike for two months over abysmal pay and classroom conditions. Adding to the national queasiness, extreme cases of child abuse have been making the news.

Israelis speak of a creeping demoralization. The 2006 war in Lebanon was a failure, and for seven years Israel, with all its military might, has been unable to stop the crude rockets fired from Gaza from hitting the city of Sderot.

Critics of the austerity effort accuse it of populism, defeatism and demagoguery.

“Have we gone mad?” Sever Plocker, a journalist, wrote in the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot. “Has something gone awry with our collective mind? The State of Israel will mark its 60th anniversary in a sour, angry, depressive atmosphere of public aversion to ‘wasting the money on celebrations.’ ”

Shalom Kital, another journalist and a member of the advisory committee to the government on the 60th anniversary events, likened the country to a man who has had a bad year. “Come his birthday, the family still gathers round to celebrate,” he said. “The solution is not to go into a bunker and cry.”

Both sides agree that it is not really about the money. The $28 million budget represents a tiny fraction of the government’s annual budget and would do little to fix the country’s social ills. Officials also note that the sum is far less than the nearly $70 million spent on the 50th jubilee in 1998, and emphasize that most of the money will be spent not on fireworks, but on educational and infrastructure projects.

If anything, the public’s mixed feelings reflect widespread disdain for the government and a profound distrust of politicians. A poll in late March published in the Hebrew daily Maariv asked which of five potential candidates, including leaders in the government and the opposition, was most suitable to be prime minister. The largest chunk of respondents, nearly 31 percent, chose “none of the above.”

Successive governments have been widely criticized for “zig-zagging,” lacking a clear agenda or long-term strategy. Because of the chronic instability of the governing coalitions, ministers are often not around long enough to see anything through.

The 60th anniversary celebrations are a case in point. The special funds were approved two years ago, but it took until Sunday for Ruhama Avraham Balila, the minister in charge of the anniversary events, to reveal details of the plans. Until then, most people could only guess how the money would be spent.

Avraham Balila insisted at a news conference that she and a small team of four had been working at a “dizzying” pace. The problem, she said, was that she was appointed to the job only last August. One predecessor resigned from the government in protest after the Lebanon war and another switched portfolios in a cabinet shuffle. Apparently, nothing had been done.

“We had to begin from zero,” said Ilan Marciano, a spokesman for Avraham Balila. After the plans were unveiled, Avni’s petition got longer, adding about 1,000 signatures a day. One radio commentator complained that many of the projects should fall within the running budgets of government ministries. Other Israelis remained skeptical about who would benefit from them.

“I’m relatively sure that the huge budget is not going anywhere good,” said Cindy Shulkin, a Jerusalem social worker whose daughter Liron, 15, will be dancing at the main Independence Day opening event. “Though I have to say there is some worth in celebrating. People have become so cynical.”


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