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German-Israeli Literature Festival 2019
Get rid of the sourpusses!

Author Maayan Ben Hagai is a guest at the German-Israeli Literature Festival 2019
Author Maayan Ben Hagai is a guest at the German-Israeli Literature Festival 2019 | Photo: Yael Ilan

Rhetoric can exclude, hurt and define others, writes the Israeli author Maayan Ben Hagai. She is a guest at the German-Israeli Literature Festival organised by the Goethe-Institut together with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

By Maayan Ben Hagai

The junkie, who it’s still obvious was once very handsome and wears pointed-toe shoes, is walking through the tramcar in Jerusalem again. “A charitable donation,” he asks of a devout woman, “some money to buy food for the children.” To an adolescent in a crocheted kippah he confides, “An Arab stole my money.” The kid looks at him sheepishly, and the junkie, enraged by his own words, exclaims bitterly, “Look at this, just because I’m a Jew, he robbed me.” And before the tram reaches the next stop and he gets off with empty pockets, he barks at us all, “Is that how you treat a former officer?”

Finding the weakness in a split second

With keen senses and a good dose of bravado, the begging junkie, like a copywriter or a prime minister fighting not only for his political future (behind or beyond prison walls), has to expose the weakness of those on whom his life depends. He must locate the places where he can reveal a layer of compassion, pain or fear. He doesn’t hesitate to make a mockery of himself, to seem disingenuous and rude. The essential thing is the “motivation to act,” because he only has a split second to get us to put our hand in our pocket, to grasp after the appropriate wares in the supermarket or the right ballot in the privacy of the voting booth.

Every success comes with a threat

Just about a kilometre from the tram stop is where Benjamin Netanyahu held his famous “Sourpuss Speech” in October 2017 at the opening of the Knesset winter session – a sort of first fireworks for the festivities marking the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. As usual, he began by enumerating events in the history of the Jewish people, placing himself last in a series of great statesmen who had impelled the return of the Jewish people to their country. Then he listed his achievements and accomplishments: cyber and high tech, unprecedented growth in transportation that “makes one forget the concept of outskirts,” military strength and flourishing foreign relations, a decline in unemployment, an increase in the number of tourists and satellites in space.
True to the rules of the genre, the successes were immediately followed by the same old threats: wars, labour migrants and illegal immigrants besieging Israel’s borders, Iran and its nuclear weapons programme, radical Islam and anti-Semitism. He presented Donald Trump’s rescission of the nuclear deal with Iran as a cherry on the cake’s icing, with a blissful facial expression mingled with malicious glee. There you go; Netanyahu had proved to his constituents that he was a head of state who dictated their agenda to the major powers.

Deathly serious, exaggerated and grotesque

“Israelis know it’s a wonderful country,” the prime minister exulted. When they return from abroad, they all say, “There’s no country like our country!” Netanyahu stated, seemingly wanting to claim credit for the people’s love of their homeland. “But all of this,” he continued, “does not impress the domestic industry of despair.” He then went on the attack: The sourpusses in the country always had something to complain about, everything is going to the dogs – or so they say between their next flight to Berlin and return from a weekend in London.
“The sourpusses will always be sourpusses just because we haven’t cleared any settlements,” he said, mocking those who demand a territorial compromise to end the conflict, and portraying them as ungrateful kin who simply lack joie de vivre. Just like the beggar who doesn’t get the money for his next high from the passengers in the tram, anyone who doesn’t support Netanyahu is automatically contemptible. And like the entire Jewish people, the head of the government is also subjected to constant persecution, from outside and inside alike.
Like the junkie’s appearance, Netanyahu’s populism is always a theatre play that indulges in the trash, yet is deadly serious, exaggerated and grotesque. For unlike the beggar junkie, Netanyahu has PowerPoint presentations, photos of soldiers and helicopters on the northern border.
The article is an abridged version of the article translated into German by Markus Lemke and published on 2 September 2019 in Der Tagesspiegel.
The German-Israeli Literature Festival 2019 entitled: "Louder, ever louder?“ which will take place on September 4th & 8th 2019 in Berlin The German-Israeli Literature Festival 2019 entitled: "Louder, ever louder?“ which will take place on September 4th & 8th 2019 in Berlin | Photo: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung