Friday, 3 July 2009

Vitamin P

Okay, unscheduled break over.

Sometime last year, I posted a message on an online forum, asking for the contact details of a (potential) professional contact.

Someone kindly obliged; but in a postscript to her message, warned that I'd need "Vitamin P" if I hoped to make any headway.

"Vitamin P?"

Israel, many argue, was built upon the premise of what we call in Nigeria "man know man": Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours back. In short, the act of granting favours and preferential treatment to either (1) people whom one knows personally - by blood, marriage, friendship or other, less immediately tangible connections or (2) People in a position to reciprocate the favour in due course, in short providing a reason to tilt a decision in one's favour.

Some call it nepotism; others, less kindly, describe it rank corruption. Everyone, apparently, refers to it as Protekzia or Vitamin P.

Why is it so prevalent in Israel? Who knows. My guess is that, given the heavily centralised organs of state pre and post independence, combined with a natural (?) dichotomy between the participants in successive waves of Aliyah and the differing "ethnic" origins of each wave, this was pretty much inevitable. You know: The Russians viewed the Poles with suspicion. The Poles thought the Yekkes, with their ties and jackets in the noon-day sun, insane. The pre-1939ers felt a combination of pity and condescension to the post 1945ers. And as for the post-1948ers from Norht Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East...

But that's off the top of my head. The point is, the prevailing belief is that nothing is completely straight in Israel, and that people habitually call upon ties of kinship and friendship willy-nilly in order to get ahead in life.

(Digression: One interesting fact I came across once was that, up until just before he left the Army for politics in the early 1970s, Arik Sharon was a card carrying member of Mapai/Avoda - the presumed pre-requisite for getting along in life and in politics, back in the day...)

Yesterday, the main newspapers reported that Alon Hilu, the winner of this year's Sapir Prize for fiction had been stripped of the award because of an undeclared connection; Yossi Sarid, the chair of the judging panel is an uncle (by marriage) to Hilu's editor, and furthermore had business connections with Yedioth Books, Hilu's publishers.

(It says something that this made the news, whilst the award itself was very scantily reported; but that's another matter altogether...)

Of course, responsibility lay with Sarid to declare the connections right at the beginning: the failure to do so caused this embarrasing affair in the first place. But I can't help thinking that more is being made of the affair than is necessary.

Let's, for the sake of argument, assume that Sarid did declare all relevant relationships at the onset. Would that mean that he should have been obliged to recuse himself from the judging process? I think not. The overlaps in certain areas of public society, in this country - Politics, the Arts, Public Punditry, Journalism and so on - are significant enough as it is, without taking into account the fact that, really, Israel is a very small country indeed.

But I'm not sure that people are that forgiving. The immediate insinuation is that Hilu's "triumph" (now turned to ashes, of course) was a result of Vitamin P: with such impeccable connections at the top of the tree, how could he not win?

Pity, that. Needless suspicion. Look at it another way: Another member of the jury, Ariel Hirschfield, has had similar suspicions levelled against him, this time for an undisclosed connection with another nominated writer, Ronit Matalon. In this case, the book in question was actually dedicated to him. Let's face it, it would be pretty hard to be more transparent than this. I mean, his name is on the bloody fly-leaf...

But then, who believes in transperency in this country? I guess everyone is just afraid of being stitched up, of being a Frier. Shame. Life doesn't need to be so full of suspicion.


MMM said...

I'm surprised by how moderate you've been in this post. Living with suspicion all the time, clearly isn't ideal, but "Vitamin P" or nepotism or privilege, whatever you want to call it, should where possible be ruthlessly exposed.

Goy said...

Do you really think so? I'm not exactly a fan for the murky depths that one plunges into when transparency is eschewed, but I do think that a philosophical approach like yours is impossible to maintain in real life. I work freelance: I know that I've secured gigs mainly on the basis of knowing the person doing the commissioning. (Not very often, I must add: with the example I used in the blog, I'm pleased to say that I got the work all by myself...)

I'm pretty certain that anyone - without qualification - who works for himself or herself has secured at least some work on the basis of 'man know man'. Wouldn't you agree?

I'm more interested in the shades of grey in between...

MMM said...

Interesting point. But I think a culture that is too tolerant of "Vitamin P" is on speedy road to madness for the vast majority of people who aren't lucky enough to be connected.

I think a small but important distinction must be made between "who you know," and "who you get to know." I am also a freelancer and whilst like you i agree that a lot of work comes from people knowing me - these are people who got to know me because I was out there whoring myself, thrusting myself in people's faces, networking and getting to know people. WORKING to become part of the network is one thing. it is quite another for Vitamin P to be the preserve of only those who were born into it. Vitamin P in its purest form should be ruthlessly exposed.

Adam Ehad said...

Interesting stuff. I've written a short piece about protektzia, which can be found here;