Diplomacy, Music, and War: Israel’s Emotional Roller Coaster of a Day

In Jerusalem: The dedication of the new U.S. Embassy. In Gaza: At least 55 Palestinians killed in violent riots. In Tel Aviv: Rabin Square packed with revelers celebrating Israel’s landslide victory in Eurovision.

By Eylon Aslan-Levy|May 15, 2018 12:00 PM

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dickens’s famous line could easily be the headline for Monday evening in Israel and its tale of three countries. In Jerusalem: The festive dedication of the new U.S. Embassy. In Gaza: At least 55 Palestinians killed in violent riots on the border. In Tel Aviv: Rabin Square packed with revelers for a performance celebrating Israel’s landslide victory in Eurovision.

Israel was in the throes of acute split personality disorder on Monday night, dancing on the edge of a cliff and trying not to look down.

It scored a diplomatic victory with the dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem—a Rubicon crossed in the quest for international recognition of its sovereignty over its capital. It was such an achievement that nobody cared that the embassy was blessed by a pastor who once said Jews were going to hell.

Israel celebrated a cultural victory with a concert feting its Eurovision win—not to be underestimated in a country with a siege mentality, where every reminder that not the whole world hates it is taken as a personal and national vindication and cause for celebration.

But at the same time, Israel was using lethal force to protect this Elysian reality from the organized violence on the Gaza border, where Palestinians threw themselves at the border fence. The IDF reported a mass storming of the border by hundreds of rioters, the detonation of 10 explosive devices, live fire against Israeli troops, and 23 brush fires caused by 17 flaming kites. Jerusalem gained an embassy, and then two countries recalled their ambassadors from Tel Aviv in protest.

It all had the feeling of Nero playing his fiddle while the enemies stormed the gates. The city wasn’t on fire, but the gates were.

Only 24 hours earlier, on Sunday night, the Old City of Jerusalem witnessed the annual Flag March to celebrate Jerusalem Day. The day belongs to the Israeli religious nationalist right, and it would be fair to say to the far right. In the carnival-like crowd as it marched through the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall, I saw countless stickers saying “Kahane Was Right,” “Transfer Now” (i.e. the expulsion of Arabs from Israel) and “Jewish girls for the Jewish people” (on the black stickers of the anti-miscegenation group Lehava).

What a dissonance. In Jerusalem, speakers at the Western Wall spoke of redemption and rebuilding the Third Temple; in Tel Aviv, of love, tolerance, and embracing diversity. In Gaza, drones cut down flaming kites; in Tel Aviv, drones filmed crowds of youngsters dancing like chickens, winner Netta Barzilai’s signature move. In Jerusalem, crowds were led in chants of “Jerusalem is ours!”; in Tel Aviv, “Netta is ours!” At Jerusalem’s embassy dedication, cheers for Donald Trump; in Tel Aviv, cheers for the song inspired by the #MeToo movement. In Gaza, the smell of tear gas; in Tel Aviv, weed.

Doron Medalie, composer of Israel’s winning Eurovision song, addressed the crowds in Rabin Square, tackling the dissonance head-on before the concert. “There are some not-so-nice things happening in Israel, including at this very moment,” he said. “We’re used to cancelling good things because of less good things. And today we’re performing a very big experiment… We’re not ashamed of being happy, so a crazy energy of love will emanate from this square.”

Religious Jewish teens marched through Jerusalem, praying to recreate the city as it was before the Muslims; religious Muslim teens marched on the Gaza border towards Jerusalem, vowing to recreate the city as it was before the Jews. Dignitaries cheered Jerusalem as the new home of the U.S. Embassy; revellers cheered it as the new home of Eurovision.

Israelis are not oblivious to this dissonance: It’s an essential part of being Israeli. To be Israeli is to live with the dissonance between what is happening in two places at once, and at one place at two different times. It’s to live in a country that celebrates good news with preternatural vitality, precisely because that good news is so unreliable and comes at a price—and because everyone has a radically different vision what good means.

Dickens would rub his eyes. An epoch of belief and an epoch of incredulity indeed.

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