The King's Speech

So, as promised, here's my post on the Masa Israel event, including Netanyahu's speech. Summary: Imagine 4,500 twenty-something Jews from around the world packed into a little slice of America, attending an event designed to convey a fairly hard-core right-wing political message in the most inoffensive and fun manner possible. 

A quick note-Masa is a program, funded in part by the state of Israel and in part by philanthropists, that sanctions programs for Jews in their teens and twenties who want to spend an extended period of time in Israel. If you're a Jew and you do a Masa program, you get a grant of several thousands of dollars automatically, courtesy of the Israeli taxpayer and, probably, Sheldon Adelson et al.

We were instructed to arrive at Jerusalem's Pais Arena 3 hours in advance of the scheduled 7:30 start time for security reasons. Despite having to come from several locations around the city, our ragtag group of leftists amazingly managed to arrive on time. The first thing I noticed upon our arrival was that most other groups seemed to be outfitted with matching group t-shirts. Some even seemed to have other items of swag, like hats and such. Yeah, our little commune in Jerusalem was out of place.

After a typically Israeli security check (I could write a full post about this alone. They prioritize questioning and profiling over high-tech gadgets like the TSA's full body scanners-our group leader was asked to individually confirm that each of us were, in fact, members of the group before we were allowed to proceed to the metal detector), we were inside. I was reminded instantly why I swore off organized Jewish social events in my teens. Holy crap. I'm not sure on exact numbers, but I think that Masa's programs are under 50% American. Lots of people from Russia and the former Soviet Union seem to do these programs (and I can't blame them with the way things are going there). It certainly felt very American, though. Like every Jewish youth group event I suffered through. Bad pop music on the speakers, teenage girls squealing "oh my god, I remember you from camp" at every turn, etc, etc. It felt like a USY or NFTY convention uprooted from a hotel convention center, loaded into an El Al 747, and transported 5000 miles to a basketball arena in Jerusalem. Which, in some sense, it was, I suppose.

We had an hour to wander before we were allowed to proceed to our seats. I walked around, hoping that someone from my youth wouldn't see me there, which would have assuredly provoked a horrific interaction in which I tried and failed to remember the name of the person enthusiastically greeting me. Fortunately, I made it unscathed. I checked out the overpriced food options, which further affirmed the all-American vibe: reheated Pizza Hut (useless) and freakishly large hot dogs (useless, for everything but crude jokes, which I of course made). There was a swag booth, but I was too late for a t-shirt, not that I'd wear one anyway. There was also a photo booth, where one could take a picture in front of a Masa-logoed backdrop while holding a large cardboard Israeli flag. I considered pulling up an image of a Palestinian flag on my phone and holding it in one hand while holding the Israeli flag cutout in the other, but I decided that this not-particularly-interesting troublemaking wouldn't be worth the effort. More to come on that later.

After an hour of time-killing (which was actually productive-we were able to have a nice group meeting in a relatively quiet corner), we were invited to proceed to our seats for the program. This actually began with an hour of sitting in the arena while a DJ played crappy American pop and the event organizers invited us to send them selfies to post on a massive display screen. Amusingly enough, someone used this as an opportunity to propose to his girlfriend. As a devoted reader of the New York Times wedding section, I judged them hard. At one point, members of my group began sending in selfies with subversive captions, such as "end the occupation." I may or may not have appeared in one, in which I made a particularly horrifying face, even given my history of making horrible faces for pictures. They even displayed one (not mine), albeit briefly before realizing that they had erred in promoting an unapproved message and taking it down. We cheered, pleased that our minor act of subversion had succeeded.

After an hour of firing up the crowd (unfortunately interrupted by a brief act of selfie-based treason against the Jewish state), the event organizers officially began the program. At first, it was reminiscent of a cut-rate Olympics opening ceremony, interpretive dance routines with flaming torches and drums and highly stylized depictions of national landmarks on large video screens included. We were then introduced to our MCs for the evening-a twenty-something woman from the UK and Max, an outstanding example of the American Jewish bro. I resented him immediately, still bitter about the fact that those of his kind got to sneak off to kiss girls on the final nights of my middle school teen tours while I sat and sulked in the corner. Fortunately, Max had the impossible task of reading from a horrendously grating script that was seemingly written by a 50-something Jewish community professional charged with writing something that the kids could relate to. Scratch that-a 50-something Jewish community professional who had spent the past decade in cryogenic storage, Han Solo in Return of the Jedi-style. Really, it was that bad. If I remember correctly, there was an Eminem parody at one point. That's all you need to know

After more dance performances, more Max, and some video presentations, Natan Sharansky came on. Natan Sharansky is a pretty interesting person, actually-he was a genuine hero in his early life, who challenged the Soviet Union's treatment of Jews and other minority and dissident groups and spent a few years in a gulag for the privilege. In the late 80s or early 90s, he was finally permitted to move to Israel, where he entered politics. Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. He became a hard-line neocon, and his writings became the intellectual basis for W's foreign policy. He's now heading the Jewish Agency. I feel terrible criticizing him-he probably suffered in a way that I can't even imagine while in the Soviet Union. However, there's no other way to say it: his speech was completely fucking batshit. He described our role in apocalyptic terms, describing Israel and Jews as surrounded by enemies in the West and enlisting us as the foot soldiers on behalf of the Jewish people and Israel. At one point, he told an assuredly apocryphal story about a Harvard Business School student who couldn't get a job after his MBA program because he refused to sign a pro-BDS petition.  With that little piece of Fox News bait out there, I decided that my time would be better used by goofing off with my friends than listening to the rest of the speech. For the record-a Google search (and, like, common sense) reveals no evidence that Harvard Business School is blacklisting people who don't support the boycott of Israel.

After all of this, Bibi was anti-climactic. He seemed a little subdued, perhaps shaken by the response to his Holocaust revisionism a few weeks prior to this event. He gave the usual speech-described Israel as the land of the Jewish people, reiterated that Israel invented the flash drive and the cherry tomato (if you do Birthright, you'll hear that little factoid reiterated about 2178128712937 times), and told us all to move to Israel. He got a 5+ minute standing ovation, but I was a little underwhelmed. Where was the fire? The passion? The embarrassing sound bite that i could be the first to share with the world, launching my career as a political commentator? Frustrated, I headed for the exit.

And that was that. I could spend more time writing about the political implications of the event, of Masa, of the narrative presented at the event, but I think that the description speaks for itself. I do wonder how I'd feel, as an Israeli taxpayer, that so much money is being spent on Masa. Like most countries, there's a lot here that needs fixing, even if you look beyond the conflict-education, health care, social welfare programs, etc. I'm not sure I'd be happy that millions of dollars are being spent to give diaspora Jews a glorified summer camp experience.

A few days ago, I met with Hillel Cohen, a professor of history at Hebrew University, and he said something pretty similar. He's troubled by the fact that Israel seems to invest so much money and resources on giving non-Israelis a role in this place, in a way that's pretty unique among the nations. It is quite strange, when you think about it. Lots of nations are the national homeland of certain ethnic groups, but, say, Ireland doesn't spend millions of dollars to fly members of the Irish diaspora back to Ireland for multi-month stays in an effort to make them move there. That's even putting aside the fact that diaspora Jews, who have little or no connection to Israel, get access to this special program while the overseas diaspora of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs does not, even if they have close family ties to this land. That's another story. Still, though, I'm glad Masa exists, albeit on a superficial level. I'm happy I got their money, and how else would I have gotten the opportunity to laugh at Max?