Killing Israel’s Bad Image – One Chuckle at a Time

Chelm-on-the-Med© is Celebrating Its Third Birthday.

Well Purim is over and Passover is just around the corner. But who says “Purim comes but once a year”?!

Not in Israel.

The truth is, hilarity is a year-round affair, hallmarked by the antics of silly politicians – from ministers down to local mayors; weird court cases and eccentric rabbis; Kafka-like ordinances and incredible bureaucratic tangles; and countless run-of-the-mill Israelis whose harebrained schemes or bizarre behavior has landed them in the back pages of the Hebrew newspapers – ‘jewcy’ items that for decades were safely hidden from the rest of humanity. Some Israelis no doubt sighed with relief, but today the wildest and wackiest news items are collected and published by Chelm-on-the-Med© Online in English – a news website that I operate, designed to kill Israel’s bad image – one chuckle at a time. Launched on Purim 2009 (what else), The Chelm Project just celebrated its 3rd birthday.

The past three years reveal that Israelis don’t just squabble incessantly over ‘Who is a Jew.’ The Who’s Who is an accurate picture of what goes for normalcy in the Jewish State, which indeed all-too-often sounds like a latter-day Chelm.*  Only the events are not folk tales; they’re for real.

Who is a Tourist? It turns out that tens of thousands of annual visitors are, in fact, merely day trippers vacationing in Egypt who even bring with them bag lunches from Taba or Cairo.  Not only that: seventeen percent of all arrivals at Ben-Gurion Airport classified as tourists are actually Jews from the Diaspora disguised as tourists who aren’t staying at hotels; they’re staying with Israeli kin and hardly opening their wallets.

And speaking of wallets, two petty purse-snatchers failed to discern Who Is an Easy Mark, recklessly attacking a modestly-dressed religious woman out for a breath of air near Beit Shemesh. As fate would have it, this particular new immigrant from the States happens to hold a black belt in martial arts.   When one of the men grabbed her from behind, she said she “realized he was not her husband” and flattened the assailant with one hand adding that she would have wasted him, had she not been holding her infant son in the other.

When the Israeli government decided to hand out 3,000 NIS bounties to anyone turning in a jalopy twenty years-old or more, the gesture unwittingly set in motion an emotion-charged exchange with civil servants over What is a Jalopy?  Government clerks had sent 5,000 members of the Classic Car Owners Association invitations to trash 30,000 lovingly restored and specially licensed three-decade-old priceless vehicles – as if they were pieces of junk.

As for unusual vehicles, the road to entering Guinness’ Book of Records can take some pretty strange turns: Persian-bornMeir David Pur, a former advisor to the Shah who immigrated to Israel in 1949 claimed he is 115 years old and should be declared the Oldest Man in the World, but if that didn’t work, Pur had another ace up his sleeve: He only quit smoking at age 110…

So much for lucking out, but what about cold logic? Who’s the outstanding candidate for the Weirdest Out-of-the-Box Solution dreamed up by Israelis over the past three years? It’s not the Israeli expat who invented hummus in a squeeze-it condiment bottle for Americans; he already won the 2010 Chelm Award for Most Promising Gizmo.  It’s the Jerusalem Light Railroad whose trams don’t have straps for passengers standing up. Only hand rails. The rationale?  The hand rails are a climate adjustment, like men’s battle fatigues in the IDF, which are tailor-made with slits in the armpits for ventilation – only in reverse. A representative of the City Pass franchise that built the line revealed: “No hang straps were installed that would force sweaty passengers to lift their arms,”

And speaking of Jerusalem…who deserves the prize for the Funniest Bill Ever Introduced in the Israeli Legislation?  Undoubtedly it goes to the Members of Knesset who a year before last summer’s protests over the price of apartments and cottage cheese, formed a caucus to slap price controls on an essential commodity: limiting (by law) the high price of popcorn at movie theaters, Among the most piquant bills actually passed into law is a private bill that now mandates maternity leave, sick leave and mandatory work breaks for work animals and another that limits how small the small print can be on billing statements. Among those killed in committee was a bill that would ban free newspapers as a threat to democracy.

Some predicaments reported in the Hebrew press could surely happen only in Israel.  Take the actions of cops and robbers in Ashkelon: The cops were called in to investigate the death of an elderly Russian immigrant who apparently died in her sleep; discovering the deceased had passed away without any kin to say kaddish, the cops not only organized a minyan of patrol officers for the funeral, they all chipped in to pay for a nicer headstone. And Ashkelon’s robbers?  In one case, In the course of holding up a gas station, the assailant kissed the mezuzah on the door (perhaps out of habit) as he fled out the door on foot…perhaps because it was a Friday night. And speaking of uniquely-Israeli situations, normally crane operators must watch out for only four kinds of “proximity hazards”: overhead power lines, telephone wires, public areas, and other cranes – but not Galev Shklarnik.  Shklarnik faces another hazard: incoming Grad rockets that periodically fall out of the clear blue sky. Perched like a sitting duck on the top of a 106 meter-high crane at a Beersheva building site, Shklarnik says there isn’t much point in trying to scramble for safety within 60 seconds; it would take him twenty-five minutes to climb down from his cab, so the plucky crane operator just sits tight, counts to sixty, and hopes for the best.

* Chelm:  a real town in Poland that was tagged in Yiddish folk humor as being populated by life-embracing fools.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Daniella Ashkenazyis a seasoned bilingual Israeli journalist.  In addition to The Chelm Project, in the past Ashkenazy wrote for Davar, Telegraph, Haolam Hazeh, Israel Scene, The Nation and a host of other news media inIsrael that are dead due to no fault of her own.

To contact the author, write to

About the Author
Daniella Ashkenazy is a bilingual Israeli journalist and the founder and CEO of Chelm-on-the-Med Online, a news outlet in English of zany news from Israel culled from the Hebrew press, designed to transform preconceptions about Israel – one chuckle at a time
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