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Fun and Fences: The Ethics and Esthetics of Neighborliness in a Midrash and Israeli Commercial

Watching Cellcom’s new pastoral, jovial, disturbing commercial about a soccer ball kicked over the Separation Fence I fear Israel may have lost too much in its wayward quest for fun
A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Yair Lipshitz is currently completing a doctorate at Tel Aviv University on the body as a hermeneutical site for Jewish textual culture in theater and drama. He is a lecturer in the Theater Department of Tel Aviv University and at Alma College for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv His book, The Holy Tongue, Comedy’s Version: Intertextual Dramas on the Stage of “A Comedy of Betrothal,” is forthcoming from

Editor’s Note: This article has received a significant amount of commentary since it was first posted, which we have published below, at its end. See also author Yair Lipshitz’s response to the commenters in the commentary section, as well.
By Yair Lipshitz
1. A new – and very troubling – commercial of the Israeli cell-phone company, Cellcom, takes place in an unexpected location: the Separation Wall (or in Hebrew: ha’gader, "the Fence"). The commercial shows IDF soldiers driving next to the Fence when a soccer ball lands in the front of their jeep. At first the soldiers react as if they are under attack – but, realizing that this is just a ball, they kick it back to the other side of the Fence, where it came from.
Surprisingly, the ball is then kicked back to the Israeli side, and the soldiers cry "Yalla, Balagan!" (which can roughly be translated as "Let’s go and have a riot!") and call several other jeeps full of soldiers to join the game. Some female soldiers arrive as well – to serve as improvised cheerleaders (the problematic gender roles in this commercial should be discussed on a separate occasion).
The soldiers play with the ball, kick it to the other side of the Fence, and when the ball’s return is delayed – all the soldiers cry together: "Nu?" ("Well?"). The ball is then kicked once more from the other side of the Fence, the soldiers resume the game, and a song in the background tells us that everything is "Yofi-Tofi" and "Achla-Bachla" ("jolly-good" and "really swell"), until a voiceover delivers the punch-line: "What do we all want, after all? Just to have some fun!"
Much in this commercial is appalling. One may agree or disagree with the justifications for building the Separation Wall, and with its current route. But one cannot ignore the acute pain and suffering caused by the building of this Fence to many Palestinians.
One cannot merchandise the Fence as "Yofi-Tofi" and "Achla-Bachla," while there are people who are (among other things) denied by it normative access to schools, hospitals, working places, and agricultural lands. Using the Fence to sell an image of "fun" is, in the better case, pure blindness toward the distress that takes place on the other side of that wall – or in a worse case, a sign of moral bankruptcy. There is nothing "fun" about this Fence.
Obviously, one can ignore it all – for this is precisely what this commercial does. We do not see who is on the other side of the Fence. Showing "real" Palestinians and the realities they need to endure will clearly destroy the harmonious self-image of a fun-loving, humane Israel. This will be too disturbing.
So what we get instead is an invisible, imaginary other – conveniently invisible and reassuringly imaginary, for now this other can be molded to whichever shape the viewers wish, serve as a backdrop for projecting collective fantasies, or better yet: profoundly ignored. This invisible other is located in a quiet, pastoral setting in the commercial – a setting which shows no sign of real life in the occupied territories (indeed, even in the actual Separation Wall, there are portions which are painted with naïve, almost abstract, pastoral scenery, so that whatever lies behind this wall is not only blocked from Israeli drivers’ eyes but beautified and idealized at the same time).
Even the protest graffiti which adorns the real Fence is replaced here by Israeli military graffiti, such as "Platoon X was here," so much a part of the visual practices of Israeli togetherness. The setting has been washed clean from conflict and anxiety (besides the soldiers’ initial anxiety that they are under attack). Fun.
The commercial is being shown frequently on Israeli TV, yet the protest against it is at the moment relatively minor. Why has the commercial passed so quietly up until now? One of the many reasons, it would seem, is that this commercial – embedded as it is in popular, visual and consumption culture – strengthens and reaffirms a well-known Israeli self-image: all we really want is to live normal lives, have fun, make peace. The commercial even seems to suggest that this is what the other side wants to. We all want fun.
But, as said above, nobody really sees the other side. Invisible to us, we cannot say what the other side wants. It is easy to imagine peace with an invisible, imaginary other – while at the same time refusing to look at him in the eye. It would be easy to say that the Palestinians want fun. This way, we can avoid discussing what might be the very concrete, very dire, needs on the other side of the Fence (food, medicine, freedoms).
The Hebrew term la’ag larash (Mockery of the Poor) seems painfully poignant here. As a result, the effect of the stark contrast between the soldiers’ forceful, rackety celebration of youth and vitality, as they occupy more and more space in the frame, and the silent absence on the other side of the concrete wall is nothing less than chilling.
The Midrash in Lamentations Rabbah 1:24, tells the following short, heartbreaking story:
"’Bitterly she weeps at night’ (Lamentations 1:2) …There was a case with one woman in the neighborhood of Rabban Gamliel, whose small child died – and she was weeping by night on account of that child. Rabban Gamliel would hear her voice, and remember the destruction of the Temple, and he would weep with her until his eyelashes fell out. When his disciples noticed this they went and removed her from his neighborhood."
I have been thinking of this story for quite a while now, wondering what potential community, what kind of neighborliness, has been undone by the actions of Rabban Gamliel’s disciples. Nowhere in the text does it tell us that Rabban Gamliel approved of their actions, nor that he wanted the woman to be removed from his neighborhood. Nowhere does it tell us that Rabban Gamliel did not want to cry and mourn what was for him the greatest loss of all: the destruction of the Temple.
Her private pain echoes his more collective one (she herself is put in the text in analogy to the Jerusalem of Lamentations, who weeps bitterly at night), and one grieving fuses with another. The destruction of her home mirrors the Destruction of another house – the Temple. As a neighbor, in a sense, the woman "un-homes" Rabban Gamliel – the woman in the house nearby reminds him of his own lack of home. Thus, the neighbor, the person who is not in my place, but in the place next to me, a place in friction with mine, makes me confront my own displacements.
And so, together, they cry – a community, or a neighborhood, of un-homed homes.
But the disciples cannot stand it. Threatened by this seemingly excessive mourning, they separate the woman and the Rabbi. Whatever was delicately shared between the two – private loss and collective disaster – is now lost. I cannot but read this text as a story of a missed opportunity, of a neighborliness of pain and displacement pulled apart by the frightened forces of separation, which refuse to confront not only the other’s grief and loss – but also one’s own.
There are many differences, of course, between the story in the Midrash and the current situation in Israel and Palestine – from the history of the relations between the two sides to the reasoning given to the act of separation. And yet, the midrashic story might remind us of what neighborly relations might be, what may take place within it, before the neighbor and his or her realities are rendered invisible, inaudible, and imaginary. Surely, Rabban Gamliel’s neighbor was no fun. But watching Cellcom’s pastoral, jovial, disturbing commercial I fear that Israel may have lost too much in its wayward quest for fun.
Editor’s Note: For another recent piece on hartman.org.il that cites the famous Rabban Gamliel story, click here to read Channa Pincasi’s commentary on Tisha B’Av, the sages, self-correction and salvation.  

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