The Tolerator

jerusalem | Half a dozen Israeli teens shouted like rock groupies and pressed up against the blue metal police railing in hopes of catching a glimpse of larger-than-life California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was in Jerusalem Sunday, May 2, to attend the groundbreaking ceremony of the Museum of Tolerance’s $200 million museum.

Every time the governor’s name was mentioned by one of the many speakers, the boys clapped and hooted, and at one point they broke into affectionate soccer chants: “Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!”

A nice sentiment, even if it was a bit off.

The same curious air of adoration and befuddlement attended the star-cum-governor’s whirlwind 36-hour visit to Israel, as many Israelis fell over themselves to catch a glimpse of Schwarzenegger and praise his visit, even if they weren’t quite sure what he was doing here.

On a normal day in Israel — if there are any normal days left — a visit from one of the country’s favorite movie stars to this terror-tired place would garner top headlines in every news broadcast here.

But the day of his arrival, Saturday, May 1, was no ordinary day. The country was teetering in anticipation of two major events: the European League championship basketball game that night and the impending vote the next day on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s referendum of Likud members on the pullback from Gaza. The next 24 hours proved victorious to only one quest (although, given the 100,000 fans who gathered in a Tel Aviv stadium to celebrate the game, it’s hard to say which event was more important to Israelis).

Amid the frenzy of car-honking basketball fans and last minute politicking for the Likud vote, Schwarzenegger stuck to his message of promoting tolerance and supporting the museum, and he also stuck to his schedule of meetings with top Israeli officials and Israeli and California investors to promote business between the two states.

But he didn’t stick exactly to schedule, which, when announced a few weeks ago, focused primarily on the Museum of Tolerance’s groundbreaking ceremony and a fund-raising dinner later that night at the King David Hotel. While Schwarzenegger’s visit was the culmination of a 20-year relationship to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, it drew praise and protests from various quarters. Some Californians were upset that the new governor’s first out-of-state visit was for so parochial a purpose. Most in the Jewish community were thrilled that the high-profile governor’s first state visit would be to Israel, a fact that upset many Arab leaders.

But in practice, the whirlwind Mideast trip — from Saturday to Monday afternoon — expanded beyond the museum and its duties to include Jordan and a visit with Special Olympics athletes.

First stop: Dinner with the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute at the Tel Aviv Hilton (where the cheering crowd was not for the Governator but the basketball players) to introduce five Israeli companies planning to expand in California. The initiative, which he said will bring 800 new jobs to Israel, comes courtesy of the California Commission for Jobs and Economic Growth. California is the fourth-largest U.S. exporter to Israel.

“We are enormously happy that despite the challenges, you came,” said Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, who was also pivotal in the Wiesenthal Center project. “You are a powerful ambassador to the Jewish people, and now we count on you to support the state of Israel and to work together to strengthen ties between us and California.”

“I love the way you pronounce ‘Caleefonia,'” Schwarzenegger told Olmert, “because that’s the way I say it, and that’s the right way to say it.”

The next morning, when Schwarzenegger towered next to Sharon, he deftly avoided comments on criticism for meeting only with Israelis.

At every stop, and no matter whom he met with, the governor plugged his raison d’être for the visit: tolerance and the museum, both themes he addressed with gusto.

“I was born in Austria, a place where atrocities happened, and because of that I want to do whatever I can to promote tolerance around the world,” Schwarzenegger told the crowd of about 1,200 people at the afternoon groundbreaking ceremony in Jerusalem.

“If only those who were crammed into the damp boxcars could see us here today,” he said, talking about the Holocaust. “If only those in the camps could know we have them in our hearts half a century later.”

Later in the day, Schwarzenegger also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. The glowing light of the eternal flame cast an orangey shadow on the governor’s yarmulke-clad head as he lay a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance, which commemorates “the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.”

The warm feelings Israelis had for Schwarzenegger seemed to be mutual.

“Am Yisrael Chai!” Schwarzenegger called out at the museum groundbreaking, using the Hebrew phrase for “Israel Lives!” But he couldn’t leave the stage without a signature parting shot.

“I’ll be baack!”