If you’ve visited Jerusalem lately, you’ve surely noticed a few striking architectural innovations. There’re the Mamilla mall, connecting the Old City and New, and the Calatrava bridge at the entrance to town, meant to resemble a biblical harp.
Opinions differ on these two, but most folks like them — which cannot be said of the atrocious Holyland housing complex, perched on a hill in the southwest area of Jerusalem. Looming above the Malcha Mall and Biblical Zoo like a giant LEGO monster, it is literally as ugly as sin, a blight on the moral and physical landscape.
In January, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski were among the 18 people indicted on corruption charges involving the Holyland project. Greedy developers accused of paying off venal politicians to waive zoning regulations is an old story, certainly in the United States. But Israel is supposed to be a holy land, a light unto the nations, or at least to the Jews, and
instead we have “Boardwalk Empire,” Atlantic City in the Roaring Twenties.
The Holyland complex, with one tall tower and a row of small structures, resembles a clenched fist with a finger pointing upward, as if to signify vulgar contempt for the public on the part of those duty-bound to serve and protect it. But the finger might also be an index finger, raised to make a larger point.
We Israelis are both titillated and repelled by the scandals of the high and mighty. We are relieved when they dominate the headlines, getting our minds off nuclear annihilation at the hands of crazed ayatollahs. We may differ about Judea and the West Bank, Turkish flotillas and the soaring price of cottage cheese, but scandals unite us, left and right, in righteous indignation.
Moreover, corruption symbolizes normalcy. The great Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik is credited with the quip that Zionism would be proven a success when Jewish cops arrested Jewish thieves and hookers. OK, but what a shande for the goyim! When a former president goes to prison for rape, it shames the nation and provides grist for Israel’s foes.
Among the crooks in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” is Arnold Rothstein, who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series in the notorious Black Sox scandal. He was the model for Meyer Wolfsheim, whose repulsive characterization in “The Great Gatsby” tarred F. Scott Fitzgerald with the brush of anti-Semitism. Still, lovers of Israel have much to learn from Fitzgerald. Next time you’re at wit’s end about what Israel does or how Israel looks, consider these lines from his essay of 1936, “The Crack-Up”:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Baltimore Jewish Times columnist Stuart Schoffman is a fellow of the Engaging Israel Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute.