Little Ms Jihad Can’t Be Wrong: Emma Thompson and the Magic of Technicolor

A guest post by Gidon Ben-Zvi, a freelance Israeli writer

I recently celebrated my third consecutive Passover in Israel.

True, this historical tidbit may lack the dramatic resonance of a hike up Masada or an excursion into the Western Wall Tunnels. Still, I am but a scion of restless Diaspora gypsies, a vagabond collection of characters and scoundrels who hustled pool in halls around Coney Island and attempted to topple Disneyland by getting in on a fun little footnote by the name of Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica, California.

Passover in the United States is instantly synonymous with The Ten Commandments, filmed in glorious Technicolor and featuring a memorable performance by Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, the cruel Israelite overseer of the Hebrews who moonlighted as informant for the Egyptians.

Since the 1956 premier of this visually arresting epic, the Jewish world has turned, turned, turned. A slew of presumptive Pharaohs, including Gamel Abdel Nasser and Leonid Brezhnev, have sought to complete the good works initiated by Rameses II – by way of expulsion, persecution and imprisonment.

Yet, neither Dathan’s whip nor Joseph Stalin’s “forgotten Zion”, Birobidzhan, succeeded in foiling the Hebrews’ tryst with destiny – in a land called Canaan, at a time ordained in heaven.

A powerful cast, dazzling special effects (for the day) and, above all, a compelling narrative is at the root of The Ten Commandments’ timeless appeal. In the years since Charlton Heston led thousands of Paramount Picture extras to the Land of Milk and Honey, however, an insidious form of historical narrative has laid claim to popular perceptions about Israel and its place among the family of nations. Even the phrase ‘right to exist’ is applied in reference to only one nation on Earth.

When the telling of a rollicking good tale supplants the rigorous pursuit and accumulation of facts, the result is historical relativism. If truth differs over time and bends over space, then all notions of objectivity are lost. This is the United Colors of Benetton School of Historical Inquiry: non judgmental, superficially egalitarian and incessantly self-righteous.

At first, this diluting of history’s richness and depth into a tepid stew of bumper sticker catch phrases was confined to the hallowed halls of academie. It took a few years, but history-as-you-like-it eventually received the full red carpet treatment. And in no corner of society has relativism been more warmly embraced than in the arts – a subculture noted for its garish sentimentalism and ersatz tolerance.

A recent incident of fashionable bigotry masquerading as politically courageous theater was that of Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson’s call for the exclusion of Israel’s Habima Theater Company from Globe to Globe, a renowned international festival being held at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

The elegant Ms Thompson cites ‘policies of exclusion practiced by the Israeli state’ as fuelling her moral outrage.

When I clicked on to the Globe to Globe website, then, I naturally assumed, based on the effervescent Emma’s righteous indignation, that the festival would consist of the tried and true assemblage of British Commonwealth nations: Australia, India, Jamaica and of course the United Kingdom. A cross-section of enlightened societies with an appreciation for the Bard of Avon was a safe bet, no?

I stand corrected. Here’s just a partial list of nations that have “partnered” with the World Shakespeare Festival in some way, shape or form, along with some of their own state-sponsored ‘productions’:

*China: “Forced Abortions: One Child Left Behind”

* Palestinian Authority: “All in the Family: Murder Most Honorable”

*Oman: “No Comment: Of Jailed Journalists and Pesky Freedoms”

*Russia: “Now Steal This II: Putin’s Revenge”

*Tunisia: “The Rise of Moderate Jihad and the Twilight of Liberty”

While Emma Thompson’s intellectual dishonesty and selective outrage is certainly sufficient to induce a temporary spike in one’s blood pressure, I must hereby admit that I couldn’t care less.

Thing is, life is quite a bit about timing. I happened to hear about Ms Thompson’s casting her lot in with butchers and tyrants right as I was heading out, with my very pregnant wife in tow, to have our pots and pans, forks and knives kosherized prior to the onset of Passover, 2012.

At some point on the short walk from our Nachlaot apartment to the site of the holy boiling, feelings of anger at a misguided British thespian melted away like so much fermented grain from a freshly steamed pot.

Then, my mind wandered to stories my father would tell me about he being the son of a bona fide hustler…and owner of the Ocean Highway Ride at Pacific Ocean Park. Emma Thompson and Sabba Harry…no obvious connection, right?

Not so fast.

Ms Thompson’s rant actually bares a remarkable resemblance to my grandfather’s blue and orange ride. Both rumble and hiss at exaggerated decibels, making an instant impact on anyone in earshot. And both will eventually be forgotten but for the tired recollections of a few old peddlers and faded theater impresarios.

Ill fated ideas, be they Pacific Ocean Park or boycotting Israel, are slated for disposal into the trash bin of cold, objective, inevitable history.

By the way, Operation Zero Chametz (Thanks Chabad!) was a success and I’m proud to say that our floors were so clean, Elijah himself could have eaten off them.

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