Friday, April 2, 2010

Fooling Some of the People A Lot of the Time

The season of spring hijinks is a dangerous one for punker and punked alike. We all like to think that we are too sophisticated to be duped, and yet each passing year provides an opportunity to put that conceit to the test. We all fail from time to time on the other 364 days, as well. Often, for example, in this age of information overload, one simply reads an e-mail or an internet article too hastily and fires off a response that, to our subsequent chagrin, misses the humor or intended absurdity of the text; hence the otherwise inexplicable popularity of the "emoticon" [can we no longer read?], which functions like the friendly pendant to the sign warning of a minefield.

In the case of an all-too successful prank, the punker is reviled for being too successful in one of two ways: either because s/he is not understood (people take the joke seriously—not realizing it is a joke, they express their outrage at the opinions supposedly expressed) or because the punked discovers the deceit and then, humiliated, complains that the punker did not provide enough clues and warning signs.

This year, the pranksters found a particularly target-rich environment when they ventured into the realm of Jewish history and holidays. Strictly speaking, neither of the two examples cited here was an April Fool's joke, but they appeared in this season and do fit the general pattern. In the Jewish tradition, Purim (14th of Adar), the holiday that celebrates salvation from annihilation in ancient Persia, is the occasion devoted not only to merriment but to complete disorder: feasting and drinking to excess, rare performance of secular drama, even cross-dressing and other role reversals reminiscent of the Catholic carnival. Indeed, according to traditional religious teaching, one is commanded to get so drunk that one cannot distinguish between the names of Haman (the persecutor in the story of Esther) and Mordechai (the defender of his people). The holiday is thus the practical equivalent of Mardi Gras, but has also assumed characteristics of April Fool's.

The first piece, in Haaretz, Israel's left-leaning newspaper of record, suggested that capitalism and fiscal exigency had now definitively triumphed over traditional religion as well as the vaunted vestiges of socialism:
Israel approves plan to let sponsors beam messages onto Western Wall
By Avi Nalaf, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: Israel advertising

Most people go to the Western Wall to pray, but now some will also head there to pay.

The cabinet has approved a plan that would allow for sponsorship messages to be beamed onto the Western Wall, sources in the Prime Minister's Office told Haaretz Monday.

According to the plan, any company will be able to project the image, logo or slogan of its choice on the ancient stones, for a price.

The proposal, drawn up by MK Mordechai Hidud, will take advantage of technology being developed by Kfar Sava-based start-up Kotelad. The company - the brainchild of U.S.-born Joe King - has come up with an innovative laser projector capable of beaming high-quality images onto walls, domes, minarets and steeples.

"After thousands of years of just being there, the Western Wall will finally be able to fulfill its commercial potential," King said. "The religious and spiritual center of the Jewish people should reflect Jewish heritage - and thus be dedicated to bringing in a healthy profit."

Kotelad held a trial run of the system last week, beaming the Coca-Cola logo onto the Wall, much to the bemusement of worshipers gathered below. And it seems that the trial was not only a technological success, with local vendors reporting a 14 percent increase in the sale of soft drinks.

The Western Wall Heritage Center plans to open an ad sales division, and sell wall space on a per-stone basis. Prices are expected to be upward of NIS 1,000 per stone per day. When no advertising is running, the wall will have the message "What are you waiting for? The Third Temple? Advertise now!" a source in the Heritage Center said.

Some companies that have already expressed an interest in the project, including Bank Discount ("Feel like you're talking to a brick wall? Talk to us instead"), Netvision ("If God didn't get your note, why not send an e-mail?") and Ytong ("If it's not Ytong, I'm not praying"). G. Yafit is reportedly also in talks to have her likeness beamed onto the wall 24 hours a day.

According to Hidud, the money raised will be used to replace the paper skullcaps that are stolen by the thousands by visitors to Judaism's holiest site, to set up a searchable online database of the notes that people place between the stones of the Wall, and to build a 14-foot high partition between sections reserved for men and women.

Happy Purim from Haaretz
The piece generated a vast amount of outraged commentary, on-site and off. However, it was just so implausible—indeed, impossible, for reasons too numerous but also too obvious to list here—that one is reduced to consternation: the closing line is like an alert, warning, "this is a joke!"

The second article was written by an American blogger to coincide with the Passover holiday, which formed its subject. Perhaps for that reason, the piece, falling as it did between Purim and April Fool's, did not set off as many alarm bells of skepticism as it should have. And in light of the rising tensions between US President Barack Obama and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the implied criticism or even insult may have seemed all too plausible to some (that is in the end perhaps the most revealing and important aspect of the whole incident):
March 23, 2010 By The Associated Press Shana Habbab (AP White House

(AP) — An unidentified Israeli official has confirmed that private discussions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu included a strong request from the President that the upcoming Passover holiday not include the familiar refrain of “next year in Jerusalem”, citing the passage as provocative and unhelpful for future peace talks.

The Administration suggested replacing it with “next year in peace” or “next year in Israel”, but leaving the final wording up to both the Israelis and Palestinians.

Netanyahu is said to have balked at the request, indicating that the refrain dates back well before the UN Partition of 1947. The Prime Minister reportedly attempted to diffuse the situation by noting that the declaration lacks any political significance, adding that most people living outside of Israel just “say the words without having a real desire to live anywhere in Jerusalem.” He further explained that, “at most, they would like to come for the Passover holiday, but only staying at one of the hotels located in western part of the city.”
In this case, though, the big, bright, urgently flashing warning sign was located at the beginning rather than end of the piece, indeed, in the very title:
"Passover Hagaddah Conclusion “Next Year in Jerusalem” Deemed Unhelpful by Obama Administration (Satire)"
And nonetheless, the story was picked up and treated with evident seriousness all over the internet (just try googling key phrases). How stupid does one have to be?

To see that this one was a joke, you had to, well, . . . just read—and think. Lesson: People believe what they want to believe, regardless of what facts and simple logic should dictate. That explains a lot about the Middle East as well as those who think they can solve its problems.

A mixed message, then: on the one hand, clear evidence of eternal human folly and stupidity, and on the other, clear refutation of the positive as well as negative stereotype of Jews as smarter than other people. Another victory over antisemitism! Happy Purim/April Fool's (NOTE: that's a joke :})

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