On Politics, Squid and Israeli Tourism

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (photo in Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons)

Many of you may have heard the public flap that occurred when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel arrived in Israel this week to celebrate the bar mitzvahs of his son and nephew. In case you haven’t, I’ll summarize.

While in Eilat, Emanuel and family ate a seafood dinner in a fancy restaurant, then passed the bill over to a representative of the Israel Ministry of Tourism to pay. Or did he? In a rapid response to the news story, the Ministry quickly denied the allegations.

So why am I raising this story here? I actually have two points to raise.

For starters, I am amused disturbed by the way this story has morphed, and see it as indicative of so much more that is going on. You’ll notice that at first glance, the story focused on whether public funds should be paying for a visiting diplomat’s trip, particularly when he is a politician who was here on a personal visit.

MK (Member of Knesset) Dr. Michael Ben-Ari (not surprisingly from a different party than both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Tourism) raised the issue by writing to the Attorney General (from this firms personal injury agency). He wrote:

I was amazed to hear that following the sumptuous meal at the ‘Boston’ restaurant Emanuel handed the bill to a Ministry of Tourism representative who was present. In my humble legal opinion there is no possibility of making the State of Israel pay for such a meal, as part of a private visit by the White House Chief of Staff and his family.

But digging a little deeper reveals that much more is going on here.

“The public coffers are not up for grabs and the fact that the gentleman [Emanuel] sponsors anti-Semitic policies in the White House is certainly no justification for digging into the public coffer at the expense of the old lady in the corridor of the hospital,” Ben-Ari added – in a reference to the shortage of hospital beds in Israel, which is attributed to budgetary problems.

(Emphasis is mine) So as is so often the case, politics is apparently at the core here. Had Emanuel been a sponsor of policies with which Ben-Ari agreed, I highly doubt the issue would have ever been raised.

Calamari: one of the offensive dishes (photo by "roboppy," taken from from Flickr)

Further underscoring this point is the religious tone that this non-story took on. Note the headline of this article in the Jerusalem Post about the Ministry’s response. The main question was shifted from whether we should be paying for the Emanuels’ dinner to whether the Israeli government should be paying for a non-kosher meal in general! The Ministry spokesperson was forced to add:

Our official events are kosher but when people are on their own we don’t pick at their plates or make sure they eat all their meals at the Knesset cafeteria.

For those unfamiliar, Ben-Ari’s party (National Union) is considered to be extremely right wing, and for better or for worse, many right wingers are also religious.

Now before I go on, I feel the need to lay a few things on the table. Firstly, I am centrist, independent-minded and complex in my politics. I don’t even like to discuss my politics, or the subject in general. But I feel the need to state that I neither love nor hate the Obama administration, and am not a registered member of any political party (in the U.S. or Israel). Secondly, I must state that I am an observant Jew, and as such am far from anti-religious. My statements are coming from what I consider an open-minded and fairly objective perspective.

That being said, I need to point out that I see this claim as nothing more than a manifestation of the politics of political and religious extremists. Also backing this view up is the fact that the bar mitzvah of an innocent child (not a politician in any way) may be ruined for the same reason. Right wing fanatics Baruch Marzel (also a Ben-Ari employee) and Itamar Ben-Gvir have been trying their darndest to find out when and where the Emanuel Bar Mitzvah ceremony will take place, just so they can come and heckle the boy’s father. Marzel was quoted as saying, “We are getting closer to him,” referring to Emanuel.

This is patently unconscionable (and I’d feel this same way even if I were 100% on Markel/Ben-Gvir’s side). And that sickening quote makes it even worse. As if Emanuel were prey to be hunted, or something. If you disagree with something that someone says, does or represents, you take it up with him. If you want to protest, you protest against him. You don’t ruin the private affair of an innocent child, just because you don’t like who his father is, or what his father stands for. Period.

But this is the first (long-winded) point that I wanted to make based on this story. As I pointed out in this post, so much of what happens in (or related to) Israel becomes overly complicated simply due to the complications of life in this small sliver of a country. And it is something that disturbs me to no end. I live in Israel and love Israel because of the life I experience here. I don’t think about politics every day, nor do they affect my everyday life. So I hate when politics encroaches on everyday life, even when it really has no connection to it. (And yes, to be quite clear, I am saying that the bar mitzvah of a politician’s son has no connection to politics.)

Which brings me to my second point. It relates to the initial complaint (even if it was just a poor cover for a blatant political attack). Ben-Ari’s initial complaint stated:

In my humble legal opinion there is no possibility of making the State of Israel pay for such a meal, as part of a private visit by the White House chief of staff and his family

And when the Ministry responded, they said:

We offered to help the Emanuels with their visit but they said no…. We bring thousands of people to Israel.

So let’s focus on that core issue. Should the Ministry be paying for anyone’s trip to Israel? I am of mixed opinions on this. On the one hand, the Ministry of Tourism’s job is clearly (at least in part) one of public relations and diplomacy. They spend money in order to encourage more tourists to come visit Israel, because tourism is a major industry that benefits many people who work here. Additionally, if people come here and have a good experience, that makes it more likely that they will speak and act positively in relation to Israel, thus making the Ministry’s job one that should benefit the country overall, and thus should be a priority for the government. I’d go so far as to say that is the very reason that there is a ministry to focus on tourism in the first place.

Paula Abdul (photo courtesy of "The Heart Truth," taken from Flickr)
So if part of that budget goes to attract some high profile people to the country and make their stay more pleasant, isn’t that actually part of the Ministry’s purpose and job? And if so, does it make a difference (in either direction) when that V.I.P. visitor also happens to be a politician?

Still, I also see the other side of the argument. I am reminded of a news story from a few years ago when then-co-host of American Idol, Paula Abdul tearfully gushed about how a trip to Israel had been a dream of hers.

“My father is a Syrian Jew whose family immigrated to Brazil. My mother is Canadian with Jewish roots. My dream is to come to Israel for a real holiday,” Abdul replied.

[Then Tourism Minister Isaac] Herzog responded by inviting her to come to Israel during the Hanukah festival.

Sources at the consular office in Los Angeles reported that at this point Abdul was close to tears. She hugged Herzog and said: “I will come; you have helped make a dream come true.”

When I read that story I remember how silly I found it. I mean, here is a major star who has millions of dollars. If she had really been dreaming for so long of coming to Israel, why didn’t she just buy herself a ticket and go?! (And by the way, I don’t even know if the trip mentioned in that article ever took place or not. I couldn’t find any news stories about it, so I doubt it.)

So I think my belief is that if paying for a few things will help bring a V.I.P. who wouldn’t normally come to Israel, then I am all in favor of the Tourism Ministry using part of their budget for that. But if that same person was likely to be coming anyway (as would seem to be the case with Emanuel, and at least should be the case with Abdul since it was her “dream” and nothing should be preventing her from coming) then there is little reason the government should be contributing to paying their bills. And thus, if the Ministry did pay for the Emanuels’ dinner (kosher or otherwise), I think it is wrong, though not horrendous.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “On Politics, Squid and Israeli Tourism

  1. Alissa says:

    I totally agree with you regarding the apparent stalking of Emmanuel. I have to yet to agree with him on anything, and I am definitely not a fan, but his kid’s bar mitzvah is neither the time nor the place. Ask for a meeting, corner him in the lobby of his hotel – when he is alone, or write an editorial lambasting him. Fine. Leave his kid alone.

    As for point 2, if it’s a junket, something that will provide tangible results, then yes, the Ministry should put out, at least a little bit. As you said, though, for a personal visit, the Ministry should not pay a penny, er, agarot.

    So, basically, I agree all around πŸ™‚

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