What would life be? Without a song or a dance what are we? —Andersson & Ulvaeus
Pesach morning, while reading the paper at our seder hosts’ house, I came across an article about the firing by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the P.A.’s ambassador to Moscow. The actual firing was supposed to have been for political reasons, but among the cumulative strikes against the ambassador was the fact that embassy staff complained that he spent too much time at concerts and the theater. As I read on, I learned that P.A. ambassadors frequently avail themselves of cultural events in their host countries, and have also been known covertly to seek citizenship.
I was amused by this and mentioned it to my hostess, who was born in Vienna and grew up a few blocks from the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House). She wasn’t in the least surprised to hear this. “Think about it,” she said. “No wonder they’re so violent; they don’t create anything.”
This got me thinking: What is the role of art, music, and dance in a society? What separates countries that have this from countries that don’t? Does a violent, backward society create lack of culture, or is it the other way around?
I once learned with a rabbi who, while he had no love for the Palestinians and their mission to destroy Israel, had great respect for the poetic tradition in Arabic. I believe that there are artists who exist and practice their art (writing novels, painting, etc.) within Palestinian society. But as far as I know, there is no public support for these pursuits, no societal embrace or governmental funding for them.
Don’t try to tell me that there is no money to support culture in Palestinian society. The West has showered the P.A. with millions of dollars for years, but instead of being used to develop infrastructure, industry, modern education and cultural institutions, the money goes toward security services for the government and weapons to shoot at Israelis.
Soon after reading the article about the firing of the P.A. ambassador, I read another interesting piece by David Klinghoffer. This piece was entitled “The Israel Test,” and in it Klinghoffer discusses a theory developed by George Gilder, a “capitalism and technology guru,” whose book by the same title is shortly to be published. Gilder asks the following questions in formulating his theory: “What is your attitude toward people who excel you in the creation of wealth or in other accomplishments? Do you aspire to their excellence or do you seethe at it? Do you admire and celebrate exceptional achievement or do you impugn it and seek to tear it down?” The theory outlines two different attitudes toward financial success, and is described by Klinghoffer thus:
Some people see wealth-creation as a zero-sum game, where your enriching yourself means that you are taking something away from me. Others see wealth as almost miraculous. Material value is created from nothing – ex nihilo. That is, from nothing material – but from an idea, from creativity, from genius. In this view, your enrichment takes nothing from me. In fact, it creates opportunities for your neighbors to enrich themselves by doing business with you. Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, with their pitiful economy, have failed spectacularly to perceive this.
Klinghoffer also notes that
Jews are known for their greatly disproportionate giftedness in film, physics, finance – almost every field where creativity and intellect determine success. Gilder writes with candor about Jewish “superiority and excellence.” As a result of such Jewish gifts, Israel has done far more with far less, in physical resources, than any other country. The Israeli technology boom has made this clearer than ever.
So how does this relate to culture? Israel has created a thriving cultural world of dance, theater, music, and art (benefiting immensely from the transfer of many Jewish institutions from Europe to Mandatory Palestine before the Shoah, as well as the Russian aliyah), with precisely zero international assistance. It has created it ex nihilo, just as it cobbled together an army and air force and defeated the well-trained Arab armies who set out to destroy it in the War of Independence, absorbed nearly a million Jews from Arab lands who arrived penniless in the 1950s and 1960s, and transformed itself from a tiny agrarian society to a world leader in technology and medicine. And Israel isn’t selfish with its wealth; whenever disaster strikes somewhere in the world, Israel is usually the first to mobilize teams to provide necessary food and medical aid.
According to Gilder’s theory, the P.A. holds a zero-sum attitude toward Israel and the West. Not only do they not foster a creative society (unless you consider bomb-making an art form), they also resent when their representatives serving in foreign lands enjoy the cultural creativity available to them. The Arab world, which once led the world in art and science, has forgotten its past and seems to care for nothing but dragging itself (and everyone else) into a new dark age.
And the behavior of those P.A. representatives? I believe they’re following their natural, human instincts to enjoy the fruits of human thought, emotion, and endeavor. Perhaps some of them have fallen in love with art, and out of love with war. Good luck to them, poor stiffs.