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Is Downloading Photos of Natalie Portman A Proper Way To Celebrate Israel's 60th Birthday?

Israel’s 60th Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, fell on Thursday, and the momentous anniversary is being marked — and marketed — in America with a slew of cultural events designed to forge connections between American Jews and Israel in as a-political a way as possible.

It’s a great idea, because goodness knows Israeli politics ain’t doing the job. And Israeli culture, particularly music, is better — and more popular in America — than ever. (Israeli singer/songwriter, Yael Naim, even has a song featured on a Mac commercial, the pop music equivalent of selling out Carnegie Hall.) The JTA has written all about it.

The musical celebrations fit nicely into Israel’s latest P.R. strategy, whose gist is, we’ve got more than religious icons and gas masks. We’ve also got fantastic music, literature, and beautiful women, including Natalie Portman (the Israeli-born film star hosted this past Wednesday’s gala 60 at 60 concert at Radio City Music Hall and could be the best thing to happen to Israeli public image since, well, ever).

Wednesday’s concert was the culmination of a 60 at 60 musical tour that’s been going on since the beginning of May and will continue through June 1st, and music really is a brilliant choice for a cross-cultural celebratory experience. Of all art forms, it is the most accessible and the most universal. Even those who don’t understand Hebrew can appreciate a good beat or a catchy tune.

But is appreciating Israeli culture the best way to celebrate its survival as a Jewish State — which is really what we’re celebrating? Is liking Israeli music likely to forge a meaningful connection to the land that produced it? And are these fun artistic events just a slick marketing tool, used to gloss over the difficult politics that still run through the core of Israeli society?

It could be. Take the abysmal attempt of the Israeli Consulate last year to woo American men with a photo spread of hot female IDF soldiers in Maxim magazine. Such “celebrations” can quickly devolve into a gross superficiality (and sexism for that matter).

But celebrating culture doesn’t have to superficial if we put it in the right context. Which is that a vibrant cultural and artistic life is a sign of a nation’s health. As we know well from America’s failing public school system, the arts are the first thing to go when there’s not enough money, and the same is true for societies in general. A nation at war tends not to be quite as focused on putting money into, say, the film industry. So the point of these cultural celebrations is not that Israeli music rocks but that after 60 years Israel has evolved from a nation struggling for mere survival into a thriving country with the resources to develop amazing artists whose music has the opportunity to rock, and measure up on the world stage.

By the way, for the appropriate answer to that Maxim photo spread, see photographer Rachel Papo’s “Serial No. 3817131,” a slightly more politically charged but significantly more meaningful collection of photos of female IDF soldiers, in full uniforms, not bikinis.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman