My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
XII Deri and Drugs: Religious and Secular
In chapters 11 and 12, Ari gets away from the world of serial begats and begins to explore offshoots of his promised land that have blossomed in the twenty-first century. Chapter eleven entitled “J’Accuse 1999” offers a fascinating portrait of Aryeh Machluf Deri who was almost solely responsible for the eruption and growth of the Shas political party on the Israeli political scene. The book is worth buying for this chapter alone. After providing some historical background to the fall from grace of a well-established and successful Moroccan Jewish family in its transition to Israel following the 1967 war, the vignette traces Deri’s transition through a series of Yeshivas as a young chosen genius that paralleled his own family’s decline from plenitude and honour to dependency and shame. Against this background, Deri succeeds in persuading Sephardic rabbi Yosef and Ashkenazi super-rabbi Elazar Shach to co-sponsor a new Sephardic religious party.
Ari traces the rise and fall of that party alongside the perceptions fostered of Deri as someone who skirts rules and takes bribes while showing how effective Deri was in building an educational and welfare system for the Sephardic poor to replace the disintegrating welfare systems of the Israeli state. In the face of all this criticism and opposition, in joining the coalition government as Minister of the Interior, he is portrayed as being the architect also of a relatively highly successful Russian immigrant integration program. Further, by enlisting the help of a mystical rabbi, he was able to stave off all the criticisms and attacks and secure 10 seats for Shas in the 1996 election in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords.
After the elections, a new wave of attacks came at Deri as the Attorney General’s office in 1997 decided to indict Deri on suspicion of persuading Prime Minister Netanyahu to appoint a pliant attorney general presumably so that attorney general would end the corruption charges against Deri. Finally, in 1999, Deri was charged with taking $155,000 in bribes. In the June 1999 elections, Shas went from ten to seventeen seats in the Knesset. His appeal is rejected by the Supreme Court in 2000 and Deri goes to prison for four years.
However, Deri rises from the ashes like a Phoenix and Ari paints a rather sympathetic portrait of a man who arose from nowhere as a “root out of dry ground” to become a prophet in his own time because he understood in great depth the personal mortification and humiliation process of the resettlement in Israel for those who lost their status and their material possessions in moving to Israel. Further, unmoored from their traditions, they came to a country which was largely spiritually bankrupt. In the portrait offered and in the absence of the evidence against him, one is almost convinced that Dere was politically lynched. And the purpose is evident. Ari too in this book and this chapter uses it to indict the state for its callousness and the Sabra elites for denying the Holocaust, denying the Nakba, denying the Diaspora and, in this chapter, denying the Orient, The Sephardim were culturally castrated. The tale of the rise and fall of Deri is told as a story of the rise and fall of the Oriental Jew in Israel.
Chapter Twelve is entitled “Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition, 2000.” I am familiar with the night life and the club scene of Israel because in my twelve years hosting and producing the television show Israel Today, we made one show on the wild nightclub scene of Israel. It is the only show we made that we never broadcast. It was unsuitable for the evangelical Christian station on which Israel Today was aired. I recall that making that show almost deafened me.
Ari features Itzik Nini, a dancer at Club Allenby in Tel Aviv and his ascription of radical change in Israel to drugs. “They make everyone happy. They liberate you. They open things up, especially Ecstasy…It doesn’t remove you from reality, but makes you feel better within reality.” I have never taken drugs of any kind. I witnessed what the drug culture did to RochdaleCollege in the sixties. I have no sympathy with the drug culture or its claims even when my children, and now grandchildren, accuse me of being close-minded and cut off from an important dimension of existence. I just see it associated with decadence and not the music of the Beatles, though it is certainly an offshoot of the sixties revolution. This part passed me by entirely..
In the contemporary club scene in Israel, Deri is not god. God is the DJ as Ari contends. It is a scene in which gays are the leaders and may be the reason that Putin is so anti-gay. In my world, I do not associate the liberation of gays with drugs. My gay friends were not into drugs in any significant way. Ari may be correct that drugs are associated with the liberation of club culture and, hence, gay culture, as its leading edge for “the gays have totality”. “Gays are the very total people, that’s what makes the parties so over the top. If it’s costumes, then it’s costumes all the way. And if it’s drugs, then it’s drugs all the way. And if it’s sex, then it’s sex all the way.” (201).
Michal Nadel is another spokesperson for this Israeli tribe, for in its beats, in its all-night dancing, in its throbbing music that prevents the mind from thinking at all, in its forging hundreds of sweating and dancing bodies into a single organism, this is truly a tribal culture. Ori Starck and Ravid Zilberman are two others. Ravid says, “”You enter something that is not quite real, a dream that makes your head spin. And all your barriers fall away. All your inhibitions. You are transformed..” (304) All because of sex and drugs.
Have these young Israelis never read about the cult of Dionysus! This is nothing new. This decadent escapism may be portrayed in its excess in The Wolf of Wall Street, but all it is is excess. All it is is decadence. All it is is escapism, self-indulgence and excess. To present the eternal need for stimuli and pleasure and excitement, to present the dervish worship of the golden cow as a sacred calling where there is no inhibitions, where there are “No more poses, no more pretenses” (307) is the biggest pretence of all. Aas Ari records the apologists, “The sound system is so loud you can’t even talk.” (307) And you can’t even think let alone think critically. For there is also “no embrace, no affection, no tenderness.” (307) Merely copulation dressed up as sex. In the wild pursuit of pleasure and fun one can recognize what Moses had to deal with
Why is Ari so overwhelmingly judgmental about everything else in israeli life but in this chapter brackets any sense of judgment. “They are very good looking, these youngsters. Here is an Israeli success story few write about.” The combination of sex and sun and markedly different gene pools has created a unique sensual beauty here.” (308) Ari is saying, ‘I am a real liberal. I do not sit in judgment of these young people who are only having fun. You repressed uptight liberals are the problem because you do not own up to your own violent history. I do. You don’t.’
The reality is that the historical and intellectual world Ari has created is as much an escape from reality as that of these drugged out youngsters, only Ari is drugged out on his own shrill judgments while in this chapter boasting that he does not stand in judgment at all. It is hypocrisy of the worst order. When he writes that, “Without uttering a word, they make a statement through their liberation, through their sexual openness and their rhythmic ritual. They make it in trying to create a space of their own that is ritualistic, lustful and fun.” (308) Jews who came to the land of Palestine and worked hard to create a space of their own that was not ritualistic, that was not egoistically lustful but with a lust for creating a new life, are guilty of disposssessing the Palestinians. But those engaged in egostic self-indulgent hedonistic lust who surrender all effort to think and have the least time and concern for Palestinians in refugee camps, these worshippers of Baal, are viewed as the truly liberated. Baccanalia is NOT freedom. If the Torah taught us anything, it taught us that.
Let us live. Let us live for the moment. Let us seize the day. To present the worship of Baal as the worship of freedom, liberation as the breaking of every taboo, and to celebrate it, is to put one’s critical faculties into a deep freeze. Ari presents this tribe as the only authentic one that rises up against Israel’s fate and Israel’s condition when the fate he has portrayed is the one he himself constructed in his own intellectual deterministic universe,