Ugly Americanization? : Big Macs. Cable. Malls. Many Israelis fear their country is losing its identity.


President Ezer Weizman blames the three Ms: Madonna, Michael Jackson and McDonald's.

When thousands of young Israelis stampeded the gate at a rock concert in the southern town of Arad this summer, killing two people and injuring 150, the president deemed it horrible proof of Israel's Americanization.

"It should teach us to stop importing poor culture," Weizman said, "to seek a genuine Israeli culture and a return to tradition."

Weizman's words fueled a national debate over the direction Israeli society is heading in an era of Middle East peace and prosperity. Today, the desert is blooming with Ben & Jerry's ice cream and blue corn tortilla chips, cable television and credit cards. And like so many other countries, Israel is stunned by the fast pace at which American culture and consumerism are taking root.

The issue of Americanization feeds into the national identity crisis that the 47-year-old state of Israel is suffering as the country ceases to define itself as a Jewish David in a sea of Arab Goliaths.

Despite their obvious affinity for Americana--as well as for $3 billion a year in U.S. military and economic aid--Israelis increasingly are questioning whether the dizzying construction of U.S.-style shopping malls and American franchise shops is right for Israel.

Is this the dream of their Zionist forefathers, to build a Jewish nation like all other nations? they ask. Or is Israel simply losing its collective soul and Jewish identity to a leisure-oriented, secular society?

"Behold the great paradox of classical Zionist ideology," social commentator and author Stuart Schoffman writes in the Jerusalem Report, an English-language magazine. "The more we are like all the nations, the less we resemble ourselves."

Israel defines immigration as aliya , or a rise from the Diaspora, and emigration as a descent. Now, Americanization provides what Schoffman calls "emigration and assimilation right here at home, without the air fare or the guilt."

No one doubts that Israel is undergoing deep social change along with the shift from the socialist ideology of its Labor Party founders to privatization, from the one-channel government television of four years ago to a cornucopia of private and cable channels with information and entertainment from around the world. The question is whether this is good or bad for the country, whether modernization necessarily leads to the "Me Generation."

For weeks after Weizman made his three-M remark, Israel's state-run radio received a torrent of telephone calls from around the country. Some praised his bold stance, others accused him of blaming the victims for what amounted to bad crowd control at the Arad rock concert.

In print, liberals denounced him for "shooting from the hip" at superficial elements of American culture--ignoring Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Jefferson--while the liberal president suddenly found himself allied with ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have long decried American rock music and Israel's declining values.


The debate over Americanization goes way beyond Weizman, however. Nowhere is it more visible than in the division between Israel's two main cities: traditional Jerusalem, the Middle Eastern holy city, and flashy Tel Aviv, the flagship of Israel's secular life.

Jerusalem is stark stone and sacred mounts, while Tel Aviv is wide beaches and shimmering high-rises. Jerusalem is men in black coats and women in modest hats; Tel Aviv is sports clubs and skimpy shorts.

Tel Aviv is also Tony Roma's for Ribs, the Chicago Pie Factory for pizza and Cactus for Tex-Mex food. Its night life lasts until dawn, when Jerusalem gets up to pray.

"Jerusalem is full of nays, and Tel Aviv is full of yeas," says Gideon Samet, a cultural writer for the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz, over croissants and cappuccino on a recent morning.

Samet, a member of the newspaper's editorial board, bristles at the suggestion that his city's modernization and material well-being are American. Rather, they belong to a new global culture united by CNN, Internet and market economies, he says. Tel Aviv is the future.

"Madonna and the Big Mac are the very tip of a much larger process sweeping the entire Western world--the use of a common language," Samet has written. "This is not Americanization . . . [but] new forms of culture and leisure consumption, which are national. Such is the case with popular music, cinema, travel abroad, dress, even manner of speech."

This is not the future that Shlomo Kalish envisions for Israel. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and Hasidic Jew fled the United States and Tel Aviv, too, to live among the mass of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. For Kalish, the two cities symbolize a national political schism with the left-of-center Labor Party and secular society based in Tel Aviv, and the rightist Likud Party and religious community grounded in Jerusalem.

He blames American influence for violent television, rock music and crime in Israel, but says the governing Labor Party is ultimately responsible for Israel's Americanization.

"The Labor Party and left are generally the people who want to be like Americans. The religious and those more to the right feel strongly about being Jewish and Israelis," Kalish says.

The ruling Labor Party is anti-Jewish, he insists. He cites Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's attempts to make a peace with the Palestinians that calls for returning much of the West Bank land, captured during the 1967 Six-Day War, that is sacred to Jews. And the government will not allow Jews to pray at the Temple Mount, site of the Muslims' sacred Al Aqsa mosque.

To Kalish, a secular Israel is simply a contradiction in terms.

"We are a Jewish state. We have to be aware of it. It is our only justification for being here," he says.


Israel is, of course, still a Jewish state operating on a Jewish calendar. The country rests on Saturday and works on Sunday. Jewish holidays are official holidays, and the army keeps a kosher mess hall. Orthodox rabbis control marriages and burials. Hebrew is the official language.

Many Israelis insist that solid Jewish values--a strong family, voluntarism and serving the Jewish state--remain intact, along with such Zionist goals as embracing Jewish immigration. These people argue that, while Americans believe the pursuit of happiness is their right, Israelis still largely believe their duty is to put the community before their individual needs.

True, Israelis have traded their leather sandals for designer running shoes. The country has opened its arms to Blockbuster Video and Tower Records, Rollerblades and mobile telephones. Even Jerusalem has a non-kosher McDonald's, and it is open on the Sabbath.

Yet there are positive side effects to this "crass Americanization," as Levi Weiman-Kelman, an American-born Reform rabbi in Jerusalem, calls it. Cable TV brings not only Madonna and Michael Jackson, but an international marketplace of ideas. It is wearing down Israel's traditional sense of isolation, emphasizing such Western democratic values as openness and tolerance, and fostering a climate for peace, Weiman-Kelman says.

On the other hand, many of the West Bank settlers resisting the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord are religious Americans taking their civil disobedience cues from the likes of Martin Luther King. They have occupied lands and blocked main highways trying to generate opposition to the government's decision to hand over land they call by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria, to Palestinians.

Their critics--Minister of Education Amnon Rubinstein among them--have attacked the settlers as "Anglo-Saxons" and "American passport holders" with the chutzpah to try to impose their will on other Israelis.

From culture to politics to religion, the debate over Americanization goes on. Some Israelis argue that Americanization and Jewish culture need not clash.

Schoffman, the author, believes that Israelis can have both American material goods and a healthy spiritual life if the country will take care to teach Jewish values and history.

"It is feasible to enjoy it all. The problem is that Israeli mainstream media, education and the religious Establishment are not equal to the task of imparting Judaism to non-Orthodox Israelis," Schoffman says.

"We need a non-Orthodox Jewish religious life that is deeply rooted in the tradition of Israelis," he says.

Author Zev Chefets, a Tel Aviv partisan, takes another tack. Israel, he says, is Jewish enough to confront Americanization. Whatever Israel absorbs from American culture, it absorbs and what it rejects, it rejects, Chefets says.

A hamburger in pita bread is just fine.

"The combination is Israeli," Chefets says. "Whatever we do is what Jewish is. The point is, we feel so Jewish we can do whatever we want."

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