May 21, 1998
An International Symbol ofNormalcy
By Stuart Schoffman
May 1998. Israel turned 50. The weather has beenfabulous. We got a new dog. Otherwise, things are morecomplicated.
Bibi Netanyahu has been keeping the White Houseand the rest of us guessing. Is he foolishly defying Clinton?Valiantly protecting Israel's sovereign right to make its ownlife-and-death decisions? Holding the Jewish fort against Arabs,anti-Semites, foreign politicians, and naive liberals everywhere? Ishe jeopardizing the peace process to keep his right-wing coalitionpartners from jumping ship? Or cleverly getting the best deal he can?Or maybe all of the above?
Many Palestinians rioted or merely demonstratedagainst Israel on May 14, calling our statehood the cause of theirnakba or disaster. Does this prove yet again that they can't betrusted to accept Israel, or does it mean that Netanyahu's stallinghas brought many Palestinians to the point of desperation? Did theyinflict their current stateless plight upon themselves by rejectingpartition in 1947, or is it unreasonable to blame today'sPalestinians for their grandfathers' fateful blunder? These arequestions with no easy answers.
On the religious-cultural front, the picture is asmessy as ever. The "Jubilee Bells" pageant was scarred by thenow-infamous controversy over the Batsheva Dance Company. Anultra-Orthodox politician named Haim Miller heard that theirperformance involved the removing of outer clothing to the tune ofthe Passover ditty, "Who Knows One?" Miller started pulling stringsand the dancers were asked to alter their attire and in the end theydropped out of the program. Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo seized themoment and the banner of anti-clericalism and declared himself acandidate for prime minister. Various Knesset members proposed newlaws to institute civil marriage in Israel and break the chiefrabbinate's monopoly. Calls were renewed for the military drafting ofultra-Orthodox youth. But nobody expected such laws to pass or Milo'scampaign to get off the ground anytime soon.
In other words, business as usual on the streetwhere I live. Charming on the micro level, mad on the macro. But am Iin low spirits? Not at all. At the very moment when the world readsthe newspapers and sees Israel as a perilous, contentious theocracy,along comes Dana International to the rescue. By now you have heardof the sexy Israeli songstress, even if you had never before heard ofthe wildly popular (on this side of the Atlantic), incorrigiblykitschy Eurovision song contest at which she carried the Zionisthomeland to victory. You are also aware that she is not in fact thedaughter, say, of Moe and Sadie International, but that hers is amade-up name and that she began life as a nice Yemenite boy namedYaron Cohen. This scion of the priestly caste started out as a femaleimpersonator, specializing in imitations of Ofra Haza, the Yemenitesinger who made it big in the world-music and disco genres. And thenone day Yaron Cohen decided to become a woman, and underwent a sexchange in 1993.
Why did millions of TV viewers in 24 countriescall in their votes for Dana? To underscore, with fiendish glee, thedecadence of the Jews? To champion the honor of homosexuals,transvest-ites, or transsexuals? To salute us on our 50th birthday?Or because Dana's song "Diva," a paean to larger-than-life women, wascatchy and energetic, and she had, understandably, garnered a goodbit of pre-competition publicity?
The usual ultra-Orthodox nay-sayers were quick tocall the victory a national disgrace. The dependably quotable ShlomoBenizri of the Shas Party said on TV that Dana is a man: You can putwhiskers and a tail on a person, but that doesn't make him a cat.Haim Miller immediately declared that just as he had tossed Batshevaoff the "Jubilee Bells" program he would prevent next year'sEurovision from taking place in the holy city of Jerusalem (thewinning country traditionally hosts the next year's show).
But lo! Prime Minister Netanyahu himself laudedDana's victory, telling reporters: "This appears to me to bedeserving of congratulations. It's definitely an honorableachievement." Dana visited the Knesset and kissed Tourism MinisterMoshe Katsav (Likud) on the cheek. An opinion poll showed that thepublic was more moved by her victory than by "Jubilee Bells." AndJerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert denounced his deputy Haim Miller as a"blabbermouth" and affirmed that the city would be hosting the nextEurovision competi-tion. Even the Gerer Rebbe, the venerablechassidic leader who is Miller's religious mentor, told him to keepsilent. Dana was a woman whose time had come.
How to explain the phenomenon? Dana represents, ofcourse, a welcome rebuff to religious coercion. "I like her," said afriend of mine, "because of the people that hate her." She strikes ablow for freedom of personal expression. But for all her flamboyance-- she performed her encore on the Eurovision stage in Birmingham,England, in an outrageous feathered gown created by the Frenchdesigner Jean-Paul Gaultier -- she's a plain-spoken, down-homeperson, or at least persona. "I love God, and he loves me," she saidafter winning the competition. She just wants to show, she said, thatpeople are the same everywhere, and ought to respect oneanother.
Think about it: Dana International is like Popeye,she is what she is. She's the very embodiment of honesty -- a personwho went all the way to heed her inner truth -- in a country where,shall we say, dissembling and hypocrisy are not unknown, even in highplaces. Her song "Diva," crafted by pop musician Zvika Pik, seemssomehow to celebrate Israeli unity, as it melds Eastern and Westernidioms and in fact, as some friends and I demonstrated at a merrycampfire singalong on Lag BaOmer, is strikingly similar to chassidicmelodies. Dana may not be Orthodox, but she professes a simplespirituality, and her triumph, dare I suggest it, can be read as aneerie symbolic counterbalance to the infamy of another Yemenite ladknown the world over -- Yigal Amir, the assassin of YitzhakRabin.
The perfume of honeysuckle fills the Jerusalemair, and golden sunlight slants through the jacarandas, as I walk thedog down quiet streets and ponder the absurdity: A transsexual divaas a symbol of Israeli normalcy. Sure, why not? And consider this: InMay 1999, Yasser Arafat will, if he keeps to his announced plan,declare Palestine a state and Jerusalem its capital. At the sametime, the Eurovision contest will be held here. A stunningcoincidence, on the eve of the millen-nium. All eyes on the HolyCity, expecting wars and miracles. Will we choose to be insular, orinternational? Clearly, we are capable of both.
Stuart Schoffman is an associate editor of TheJerusalem Report and a columnist for the JUF News of Chicago. Hise-mail address is email@example.com