Michael Saenger

The forbidden city of Netanya

There are two reasons why the city of Netanya is invisible.

netanyacroppedAnd whatever I said to them, they were not convinced.  To Israelis, Netanya is not a big attraction.  There is nothing particularly exciting there. It invisible, for them, because in a country filled with attractions, it doesn’t have many. But that’s exactly why I wanted to go.  Most English people will tell you not to go to Leeds.  Texans will tell you not to go to Amarillo. And still, despite lots of improvements, Scots will tell you not to go to Glasgow.  But they’re all wrong.

If you want to see a nation, there’s a lot to learn from Leeds, Glasgow and Amarillo. You do not see the nation as a framed picture, with postcards available.  You meet the nation at its own level, you see its rhythm, you understand it.

And that gets to the other reason why Netanya is invisible.  The media have constructed a picture of Israel that is almost entirely military.  When most people think of Israelis, they think only of soldiers, or even only of weapons.

Every large nation has an army. Every nation deserves security.

Netanya is a thriving small city.  Its main street becomes active after dark.  You hear French spoken often, and there are gelato stands opening on the sidewalk. The smell of the ocean is in the background, and there is a beautiful sculpture garden a the top of the cliffs that look down on the Mediterranean Sea.  It is a place that reminds me of the coastal area north of New York City where I grew up in many ways.

The media often doesn’t think too deeply.  It arrives at a basic characterizations of places and then begins feeding all the new events into patterns based on those characters.

  1. Putin?  Crazy and aggressive. (oops, he was never crazy, try to ignore that)
  2. Brazil?  Lazy and disorganized.  (oops, the World Cup went well, try to ignore that)
  3. Palestinians? Victimized and cornered.
  4. Israel? Vengeful colonizers.

The point here is that the first two are not just slightly mistaken, they are completely wrong. And both of them have a history. Americans love to view Russians as drunk and crazy because for so many years, America based its own idea of its virtue on a contrast with big bad Russia.  And Americans love to see themselves as industrious and successful in contrast to Latin American laziness, even when we have to create stories of laziness that aren’t true. There are plenty of examples of places where our image does not match reality.  Los Angeles has plenty of middle-class people who do not pose for cameras.  Las Vegas has a large education system.

And although some in the media want to treat #3 and #4 as sacred articles of faith, not to be seriously challenged or even discussed, there is increasing trouble with both of them.  Hamas advocates the eradication of Israel.  Palestinians, at this point, are now mainly victimized by their own government.  They have more than enough physical opportunity to build a safe and prosperous nation.  Israel has consistently reached out with offers of peace and only resorted to military intervention when the rockets would not stop falling, when civilians were being abducted, and when no credible Palestinian negotiator would come to the table to negotiate.  And finally, just as there is a history of seeing the Russians as crazy and the Brazilians as louche, there is a serious, strong and visible link between anti-semitism and anti-Israelism.

This is why going to Netanya is so important. It is a real city with people in it, part of a real nation with a culture. To see and accept the existence of an Israel that connects to that kind of city is something that the media tells us not to do, just as it encourages us to think all people in Los Angeles are thin and superficial. Some myths are more harmful than others, though, and the idea of a thriving and positive Israel with deep roots in its own land is a reality that should not be erased.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.