You Have Never Seen This Side of Israel: Odd News From Chelm on The Med
Q&A with Daniella Ashkenazy, founder and CEO of The Chelm Project
CHELM-ON-THE-MED© collects and publishes in English incredible snippets of zany news about Israel gleaned from the Hebrew press.
- Why Chelm?
Chelm is an actual Jewish town in Poland that for generations served as the butt of Yiddish folk humor, tagged with the role of being a paradise filled with life-embracing fools. What passes for ‘normalcy’ in the Jewish state all-too-often sounds like a modern-day Chelm, transferred to the eastern end of the Mediterranean.
The difference is, I’m not making these stories up. I’m not even exaggerating. They are items taken from Israel’s mainstream Hebrew press. For example - the security guard at the entrance to an Israeli bank who during the 2000-2006 Second Intifada held up the very bank he was hired to protect against suicide bombers… Now that’s Chelm-like logic!
- Why did you start Chelm?
The audience for serious advocacy content is limited, and the narrative is too cerebral. If we want to reach a larger demographic and educate others about ‘the real Israel’ there’s nothing like odd news – a popular genre - to lighten up the narrative. Laughter has a bonding effect and combats attempts to isolate and demonize Israel. Our supporters as well need and deserve some comic relief. When exactly was the last time you had the opportunity to LAUGH about Israel??
One of the triggers that launched The Chelm Project was the recollections of a middle-aged woman from Florida who said that in 2002 (at the height of the Second Intifada) she had gone on four solidarity missions to Israel “because it was like visiting a sick relative in the hospital.” Yikes!
In fact, we Israelis live lives beyond conflict even in the worst of times…continuing to do nervy or nutty or simply bizarre things nobody outside Israel hears about. Such as a bunch of young Israelis who banded together to realize ad hoc projects that cash in on their ‘street smarts’ and ‘connections’ as veterans – in one case plucking unemployed Russian musicians off the streets and organizing them into a full-blown orchestra, using their connections to launch the groups first concert to a full house.
Judging by the news that’s reported – obsessed with social tensions and shortcomings - one would think Israeli society is coming apart at the seams. No one ever hears about a bunch of cops from Ashkelon who upon hearing that a Russian immigrant had died without kin to say Kaddish, not only organized a minyan for the funeral - they all chipped-in to buy the deceased a better tombstone than the one provided by National Insurance.
- With all the news and information already on the web, what make your website unique?
Beyond the fact that it doesn’t focus on conflict-driven news, Chelm-on-the-Med Online is different from other attempts to educate about Israel. Most that do so focus on technology and innovation that benefit humanity…the payback to the reader. When there are websites that speak of the flavor of life in Israel, most are blogs written from a very narrow personal perspective or are analytical in tone – seeking to explain the complexity of Israeli society with facts and figures and historical context.
Chelm-on-the-Med Online is the only website that uses spirited back page news gleaned from the Hebrew press, allowing such ‘gems’ to paint their own free-wheeling composite picture of Israeli society – ‘written’ by literally thousands of individuals from all walks of life whose actions or antics thrust them briefly into the limelight of the daily press.
- What are some of your favorite posts since you started?
My all-time favorite is the saga of a young IDF draftee who was afraid of the dark and called his mom…to sneak into boot camp and accompany him on patrol duty. Whenever the raw recruit drew guard duty at night, she appeared, leaving just before dawn so as not to be discovered. It’s not only an incredible-but-true tidbit – worth a chuckle. It speaks volumes about Israel’s ‘civilianized army’. Forget about being rejected for flat feet. While every other military standardizes its inductees as interchangeable parts, the IDF ‘fits the service to the individual’s abilities and disabilities. The soldier in question was posted after boot camp in a job where he would not have to draw nighttime guard duty due to his phobia! The IDF even issues non-leather combat boots and non-wool berets to vegans.
- How do you see Israel and how does that translate on your website?
Israelis are warm, colorful, spontaneous, innovative and amusing creatures and Israeli society is a dazzling and complex kaleidoscope chock-full of surprises and intriguing contradictions.
One of the items that speaks volumes about how Israeli society ticks concerns a service vendor who came to install a burglar alarm in someone’s home. He takes one look at the house owner and insists, simply insists on giving the stranger his boss’ name and telephone number saying the two are the spitting image of one another – same look, same walk - and they must be brothers. It turned out the two had been separated – given up for adoption to different parents as children, and the pair are now looking for their other five siblings. The spontaneous ‘anything goes’ dynamics in this encounter reflect the extraordinarily ‘relaxed’ familial boundaries between employers and employees, between clients and vendors, between work life and personal life, and how Israelis of all kinds interact when they ‘collide’ by chance.
- What is your goal for Chelm's future?
One of our main goals is to convince others to carry Chelm stories ad hoc or as a regular feature on their own websites, newspapers or newsletter, share them via email, and use them to enhance serious advocacy and educate about Israel. There’s no writer’s fee for republishing or using such material in another way. There’s even a ‘Volunteers’ Toolbox’ on the website for those who would like to ‘join the Laughter Brigade’ and spread the word about the Chelm Project.
Besides the website, there are other platforms for ‘Chelm material’ still on the back-burner: There’s the manuscript for a book anthology that needs a publisher. A demo for television has been developed, and we dream an ‘angel’ will appear to back production of short weekly animated news snippets to close news broadcasts from and about Israel.
- What do you hope people will learn about Israel from you?
First of all, that we are human – just like everyone else, not the monsters or brutes the BDSers make us out to be. We have a long way to go: Israel is a rollicking democracy. Forget about ‘two Jews – three opinions’. That would be too easy! In 2009 there were 86 registered parties – 9 of them Arab parties and 5 ‘green’ parties. Thirty-three ran in 2009 elections, one that wanted to legalize grass, another casinos; and a third that would allow citizens to sue the banks. Five were Arab parties. Twelve of the 33 running made it to the Knesset - 3 of them Arab parties. The coalition government that was formed in 2009 was comprised of five parties that represented 57.5 percent of the electorate. Now that’s participatory democracy in action. With 30 ministers in the cabinet, the prime minister sought to hire stenographers (a dying species) since transcribers couldn’t keep track of ‘who said what’. Yet the same year, a third (!) of the Germans, Spanish and English and twenty percent (!) of Americans polled that year thought Israel is headed by a dictator.
Daniella Ashkenazy is a seasoned bilingual Israeli journalist who founded The Chelm Project in 2009 only after spending three-and-a-half years writing two books and countless white papers about The Conflict. In the past she wrote for Davar, Telegraph, Haolam Hazeh, Israel Scene, The Nation and a host of other news media in Israel that are dead due to no fault of her own (albeit, some print media such as the Jerusalem Post and Yediot continue to limp along). Parallel to her own writing, Ashkenazy serves as a Hebrew-English translator for others, mainly Israeli historians and children's book authors.