No Hasty Pudding Here
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No Hasty Pudding Here

The manufactured ‘Milky’ story about Israelis fleeing to Berlin leaves a sour taste.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

It takes foreign Christians to provide for the basic needs of elderly Israelis, and nobody bats an eyelid. But a sabra travels to Europe, finds a cheap chocolate pudding, and the country explodes. Welcome to Israel.

Pensioners here, raised on an ethos of a strong welfare system, include state-builders, war heroes and Holocaust survivors. But for years, their government failed to raise the funds to give them free or low-cost dental care.

Earlier this month, they began to get the care they need without charge — or at least the housebound among them did, with plans to roll out the service wider. Yet this didn’t happen because the state found the cash — only because a charity that collects money from American Christians, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, footed the bill and arranged for treatment.

There was hardly a murmur about the shameful fact that a country built on Jewish values has its elderly reliant on others begging abroad for their care. Yet around the same time, a 25-year-old Israeli created a Facebook page and bragged that he has found chocolate pudding in Berlin at a fraction of the Israeli price, and his homeland erupted in indignation — as reported in just about every international newspaper.

What followed was an “Operation Shylock”-like drama for the Facebook era: He churned out posts that went viral, calling on Israelis like him to leave their country based on the rock solid argument of his supermarket receipt. His Facebook page is provocatively named Olim L’Berlin, using the word reserved in Hebrew for immigrants to Israel alone, olim, to refer to émigrés to Berlin.

This young man, Naor Narkis, has tried to create the impression of being amazed at the spontaneous interest in his posts, but his campaign has all the marks of being carefully choreographed.

He took a product (“Milky,” it’s called here) that he knows that people back home adore — almost a cult item here, which symbolizes innocence, comfort and childhood. He waxed lyrical about a city that, due to its past, touches a very raw nerve with lots of Israelis. He built a massive social media following very quickly, and promoted his post in the slow news season amid the chagim, when it was going to get lots of attention.

He stayed anonymous for long enough to generate a sense of mystery, and then last Friday, before interest died and in time to make a name for himself, he revealed his identity.

This is pretty crafty, but there is nothing wrong with any of it. Why shouldn’t he build a reputation by putting Israel’s crazily high cost of living back on the agenda? After all, two of the leaders from the “tent city” social protest of 2011 are now serving in Knesset, and doing a good job.

But in contrast to this pair, who fought a genuine fight for the sake of Israel from Israeli soil, Narkis has shamelessly tried to propel himself to international fame, with nothing constructive to say to home country. His priorities were evident when he declined numerous interview requests from Israel, but, even during the anonymous phase of his campaign, met international journalists in Berlin. The long and short of it is that what he did — for whatever motivation — was to narrate a story about Israel that has natural appeal to journalists everywhere. It is the drama of a reverse exodus — out of Israel, back to the diaspora, and of all places to Berlin. It’s a great story — if you don’t let the facts in the way. And he created his own reality in Facebookland, where people will “like” and “share” just about anything, and served it up to the press.

He created the illusion that Israelis are desperate to emigrate, and that they are doing so in large numbers. And newspapers across the world could tell a story that people love to read. For there is unspoken commentary there for readers to add in themselves: This Jewish state spent the summer bombing Gaza like crazy supposedly to protect its children, but when they grow up they just want to leave, even to a city steeped in Holocaust history.

The reality is that emigration is pretty much a man-bites-dog phenomenon, standing at a low of under 16,000 per year, and that in survey after survey Israelis are shown to be surprisingly satisfied at home, despite the security and cost-of-living woes.

Israel desperately needs solutions to its cost-of-living problems, but this Berlin-led protest won’t do it — it is a storm in a plastic pudding cup that will be forgotten in a few weeks. But it leaves all of us with food for thought.

The young and social-media savvy can create worldwide fascination even in an illusory story. On the other hand, those in society that face major hardships, most notably the elderly, are further marginalized due to their lack of skill with social media.

The contrasting reactions to Israel’s silent dental scandal and the silly pudding protest left me reflecting on how our priorities are being skewed as social media becomes the home to campaigns and the place where news agendas are shaped — and how remedying this is an important challenge. The power rests firmly in the hands of those who know best to post and provoke, normally about what is on their own minds and related to their own lives. They determine what issues we are talking about — and more importantly, what very real issues and which population groups we are ignoring.

Time was, people used to ask: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it makes a sound? Today, we ask whether, if an injustice doesn’t go viral on Facebook, it’s really an injustice.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice monthly.

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