Israel tends to scratch itself until it bleeds. Not a day goes by without a brawl fueled by a ratings-thirsty media.
As Israeli society struggles to make sense of the difficult reality it routinely faces, some public debates that touch core issues are simply inevitable. Such was the case with deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan who compared some fringe elements of Israeli society to 1930s Germany. His problematic comparison created a whirlwind that has yet to subside.
Many of the public debates, however, are the result of well-planned campaigns designed to advance a certain political agenda.
A case in point is the comeback of the play “Fleischer,” now being performed at Israel’s national theater, Habima. Yigal Even-Or wrote Fleischer in the mid-1980s, shortly after the publication of Benjamin Tamuz’s dystopian Jeremiah’s Inn, a futuristic fiction describing Israel under a despotic Orthodox regime.
In Fleisher, the same theme of the strenuous relationship between secular and religious Jews is picked up. In the play, the demographic change takes place in a run-down Tel Aviv neighborhood that has been swamped by new Orthodox arrivals.
Though the play dwells primarily on prejudice and bigotry, when asked why Fleischer was chosen for the new lineup at Habima, art director Ilan Ronnen said that “it is important to revive this play given the background of Israeli society becoming more Orthodox.”
Quite coincidentally, Channel 10 TV is currently airing Avishai Ben Chaim’s documentary on the breakdown of the Orthodox community, in which he dispels the myth of a future Orthodox majority. If anything, today the Orthodox community is shrinking.
One would expect that the art director of Israel’s national theater should have known a little bit more about demographics and social trends. Instead he is busy propagating a myth that does nothing but irritate.
What’s more disheartening is that most likely Ronnen formed his understanding of Fleischer on hand-picked snippets. One such snippet from the play demonstrates the harsh dialogue between secular heroine Bertha and Hond, the Orthodox realtor. Exposing her tattooed hand right in front of his eyes, she says to him: “Do you have such a certificate? This one is given only by Hitler, and believe me, Mr. rabbi, he knows who is a Jew and who isn’t. He had never made a mistake.”
Just as Ronnen and Habima see the play as serving a political agenda, so too do his opponents, who most likely neither saw the play nor read the script.
When Fleischer was first performced in the early 1990s, some Members of Knesset were enraged by what they saw as verging on anti-Semitism. What we see here, said religious MK Avner Shaki, who didn’t see the play, is “labeling a huge number of people. We are talking about the degradation of Judaism…”
Yet, if anything, this play is about unfounded secular prejudice toward the religious.
Though the hero, Fleischer, who owns a non-Kosher meat shop, is critical of the Orthodox community, what Ronnen and so many others who base their opinion on well-chosen YouTube snippets fail to see is that the secular characters are behaving worse than those they criticize. Most notable is retired teacher Rosa, who says: “Had I not been born a Jew I would have been the greatest anti-Semite. I hate Jews.”
Fleischer himself, who has to pay a ridiculous amount of money to get a Kosher certificate, is contemplating under-the-counter selling of Hungarian horse meat sausage and bacon – blatant non-Kosher delicacies.
Had this play not been exploited for political ends, it could have been a helpful tool to teach Israelis about the way in which myth-based fears are shaping social realities. Instead, what we are left with is a play destined to fruitlessly pit one Israeli against the other.