The bungling of Israel's 50th anniversary plans

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, March 5, 1998

JERUSALEM - Are we having fun yet? Have we figured out how and what to celebrate on the occasion of Israel's 50th anniversary? In fact, does anybody here really care? Not really. Rather make than an unequivocal no to all of the above.

Israeli is suffering an acute bout of middle age birthday blues. It wasn't supposed to be this way and - and with so much to truly celebrate - it shouldn't be like this. In 1996, the government began casting its eye on the jubilee anniversary, excited at the prospect of such a positive event the entire country would surely rally around - and associate with those in power. After all, how could a people who endured unparalleled adversity not welcome the chance to celebrate and showcase the achievements of the first half-century of Jewish sovereignty in their ancestral homeland?

Officials tossed around all kinds of ideas for a year-long birthday bash? Plans included a military parade, an Israel Philharmonic concert at Masada, a symposium of Jewish Nobel Prize winners in Jerusalem, a fashion salute to Israel by the world's leading designers, an "achievements exhibition," and a Miss Universe pageant in Eilat. This was going to be one party not to miss.

It was announced that festivities would kick off on Rosh Hashanah l last September. That came and went with nothing to show except a growing political feud over plans for the celebrations. The launch was pushed off to December with a festive ceremony planned for the president's official residence in Jerusalem. But that, too, came to naught when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed to convince President Ezer Weizman to let his ceremonial lighting of the first Chanukah candle be considered the official kickoff of jubilee events. Red-faced organizers then said the celebrations would be inaugurated in February on Tu b'Shvat, the national holiday of trees.

All the while, the organizing of events was degenerating into an embarrassing fiasco. Three successive chairpeople of the official planning committee resigned amid bitter recrimination and bureaucratic infighting.

The cabinet minister overseeing the whole production quit, blaming the Prime Minister's Office for much of the disarray. The dispute deepened as senior officials traded insults and accusations of corruption and other skullduggery. Several members of the Knesset State Control Committee, appalled by the gigantic balagan (mess), said the celebrations should be called off. It seemed a hex had been put on the jubilee preparations, turning them into a farce. Few people were amused.

Indeed, few people seemed in the mood to celebrate, even without the snafus. Rising unemployment, a chronically stalled peace process and a growing rift between secular and religious sectors hardly contributed to a party spirit.

Finally last month, much to the collective yawn of the nation, Netanyahu and Weizman traveled to the southern town of Kiryat Gat for the long postponed official launching of Israel's 50th anniversary. Sure enough, in keeping with the problem-plagued jubilee committee, the ceremony ended up generating more negative publicity than positive.

Several relatives of fallen soldiers had been invited to the event, only to find their reserved seats taken by local municipal workers who refused to budge. Some of the bereaved left in tears just as Netanyahu began his address. Opposition Knesset members voiced anger at not being invited, while Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said he was shocked the capital didn't host the ceremony. No reason was given for the choice of Kiryat Gat, most recently in the news for being home to the country's only gas mask factory.

Organizers are now engaged in a furious race against the clock to salvage the celebrations before it's too late. As it is, budgets have been slashed and many of the grand events originally planned for the coming months have been shelved or scaled down.

It won't be the party it could have been, but Israelis needn't feel so bad about the jubilee mess. Other countries have also seen their best-laid plans for benchmark celebrations come unraveled amid chaos and controversy. While living in France, I remember a similar dispute erupted in 1989 over the Mitterrand government's mishandling of preparations for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. A few months before the big day, on the cover of Paris Passion, the city magazine that I was editing at the time, the headline read: "The Botching of the Bicentennial." In the end, organizers pulled out the stops, got their act together and on Bastille Day staged dazzling festivities enjoyed by millions.

With Independence Day less than two months away, I hope that jubilee organizers can pull off a similar feat and show people a good time on April 30. Far bigger miracles have occurred here in the past. On the nation's 50th birthday, Israelis deserve nothing less.

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