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Word Perspective | MIDEAST

As 50th Anniversary Approaches, Many Israelis in No Mood to Party

January 31, 1998|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Not that things have ever come easily to Israel. Founding the Jewish state, fighting its wars and building a modern country took some work. But celebrating Israel's 50th anniversary is turning out to be a nearly insurmountable task.

The kickoff of the jubilee celebration was to have been in December, on the first night of Hanukkah, but it has been postponed until Feb. 11. The party is fizzling before it ever gets off the ground.

The third chairman of the official 50th Anniversary Celebrations Assn. resigned this week, complaining of too little budget and too much meddling from his boss, the tourism minister.

Now the woman next in line for the job isn't sure she wants it. Hana Gertler said her family is trying to talk her out of taking it.

"They ask me what I need this for and whether I want to be the undertaker for the celebrations," Gertler told the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot. "I may be naive, but I still believe that it can work. I believe that the people of Israel . . . deserve celebrations."

But many people of Israel say they are in no mood to party.

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The Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are near collapse, and Israelis are on a heightened alert for suicide bombers. The threat of another go-round between the United States and Iraq has Israelis clearing out their bomb shelters and dusting off their gas masks. The economy, meanwhile, is taking a dip, and unemployment is rising along with tensions between religious and secular Jews.

"These are not good times for a celebration," said Carmela Bassoon, 47, a civil servant in the state comptroller's office who was waiting to pick up a gas mask in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. "There are better things to spend our money on. How about a computer for every schoolchild? There are people living under the poverty line with children."

"Yeah," shouted a soldier minding the line. "How about education and transportation?"

"A celebration is just to show the world we are a great country, but here we don't need it," said Sheril Malmezada, 33.

Yaffa Olmer disagreed.

"Sure, we have problems," said the soft-spoken 62-year-old. "Maybe we shouldn't spend a lot of money, but we should celebrate. It's a big thing. In the last 50 years we have built a beautiful country. We have a strong army and immigrants who have become 100% Israeli. That is reason to celebrate."

So far, the only Israelis ready to celebrate are the entrepreneurs who have produced a panoply of 50th paraphernalia--from coffee-table books and photo albums to T-shirts, key chains and refrigerator magnets. But even they are having problems.

After spending their cash to produce the goods, the merchandisers learned that distribution rights for the 50th logo had been sold to entrepreneur Aryeh Saban, who also has the Power Rangers market in Israel.

"We live from one Independence Day to another," flag manufacturer Ara Kaduri told Yediot. "I have invested $20,000, and some of the items are already on the market. And suddenly I have to pay Aryeh Saban $10,000 in cash. Why? Why should I have to pay him money to use the symbol of my own state?"

Anniversary events get underway on the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat on Feb. 11 with the planting of 50,000 trees in Kiryat Gat, which lies southeast of Tel Aviv, to honor fallen soldiers with a new "jubilee forest."

The government has also planned military and historical parades, a carnival, a Bible quiz, photo and Judaica exhibits and a ceremony on April 30 marking the establishment of the state.

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Some supporters of the galas say the Bible calls for a jubilee celebration, relating how God told Moses on Mt. Sinai that the "trumpet of the jubilee" should sound throughout the land.

The rest of the country may get into the party spirit when billboards go up, announcements go out and the events begin taking place in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, an editorial in the daily newspaper Haaretz last month summed up the mood, saying the problem with the jubilee was that "personal and political fights" had consumed the organizers while "the content of the celebrations was entirely neglected."

No one, it said, had given any "actual meaning" to the anniversary.

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