What kind of an addiction is Israel, anyway? It generates
more coverage, per capita and per square foot, than any story in the history of
the world. For an American Jew, this is gratifying but also troublesome, since
nothing looks very appetizing under a microscope, much less a pitched,
centuries-old battle between politicians and zealots. (Those are the only two
kinds of people who live in Israel, according to the coverage.)
But we can’t leave it alone. In America, we work out our
identities in comfort and moderation. Israel is the shimmering screen,
conveniently placed halfway across the world, where we project our every shred
of anxiety and chauvinism and guilt (and where non-Jews feel free to project
anti-Semitism). So when Israel gets beat up, we feel beat up-which means that
we’re feeling rather beat up these days. We glorify its agonies and downplay
its attempts at normalcy. (It’s our fantasy, damn it, and we want excitement!)
The philosopher Avishai Margalit writes that Israel has come
to suffer from allegory fatigue: “Nothing is what it is; everything is
something else.” Every stone and bullet and vote is extrapolated upon until it
is no longer the thing itself but an entire history, and this is as exhausting
as it is addictive. I pledge, therefore, to dodge whatever allegories I can in
the following paragraphs, while still marveling at just how scrambled the
American Jewish psyche has become these last few months, a stretch of
astonishing Israeli chaos bookended, also astonishingly, by Joe Lieberman and
Everyone’s an Expert
I have some cousins near Tel Aviv, suburban leftists whom I
love dearly. I met them in New York five years ago. Odi is a high-school
principal; her husband, Dori, is a logistics manager. Their trip was a
bar-mitzvah gift for the oldest of their three children, Nimrod. (Don’t laugh:
Nimrod is a not uncommon Israeli name, even though the Biblical namesake was a
Babylonian strongman.) Nimrod, who wants to be an actor, was the sweetest boy I
had ever met: honest, earnest, curious.
A few days after their
visit, I flew to Israel for the first time, and there our bond was cemented.
Last week, I e-mailed to ask how they were bearing up in the wake of Ariel
Sharon’s election. I also wrote that I was “ashamed that I have not visited you
again” since my last trip. They replied the next day. Their English is far
better than my Hebrew, but they are still shy about it and so write with a communal
“we” to deflect any grammatical blame: “We are all sitting here together, it’s
a Friday afternoon. In two hours Moti and Aviva will come for dinner. We’ll try
to have fun, even though as you know, life here makes it very difficult to
enjoy …. Nimrod had his final show in theater (got 100) and now is studying
intensively to his finals. He will join to the army on the first of September
…. We sometimes think how would we explain things to someone who cares about
Israel but does not live here. Many times we want to tell you what we think,
but it’s so complicated for us in English-so we just give up.”
This is the kindest restatement I have yet encountered of
Israelis’ age-old complaint to their American cousins: Feel free to comment
upon our politics once you move here; until then, keep your noses out of it.
But we don’t. We are experts, all of us, and we constantly editorialize. Nor do
we allow facts, or the lack thereof, to spoil a good opinion. At the Rosh
Hashana services I attended this year, a well-known writer, a liberal and a
feminist, rose to speak about a picture she had seen in that morning’s
newspaper. It was the now-famous, much-disputed photograph of a Palestinian boy
in Gaza cowering behind his father during a crossfire between Israeli soldiers
and Palestinians. The boy had been killed shortly after the picture was taken.
The assumption was that the Israelis killed him; it would later be determined
that he was likely killed by a Palestinian’s bullet-but none of that mattered
The writer (who, it should be said, is known for a certain
lack of nuance) dipped into a deep, deep vat of collective guilt and declared,
in so many words, that the State of Israel was evil and that Jews are
heartless. Did I mention this occurred on Rosh Hashana? A few congregants
seemed merely uncomfortable; the rest looked as if, were they not sitting there
in suits and dresses in a synagogue, they would have happily beaten the snot
out of her.
Had she meant to inflame, or was she simply invoking our
God-given right to be sanctimonious about distant affairs? It hardly matters.
In this climate, innocuous intentions can have the same result. A friend of
mine sends his son to kindergarten at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School on the
Upper West Side. The class recently mailed some upbeat notes and drawings to
Israel to be distributed, along with homentaschen ,
to Israeli soldiers for Purim. The Heschel parents thought this was a pretty
nice idea. The same idea was soon introduced at a small, liberal congregation
at Ansche Chesed, a synagogue some 10 blocks north. There, a heated debate
ensued. The opposition claimed that sending Purim gifts to Israeli soldiers was
an inherently political statement that was insupportable in light of Israel’s
treatment of the Palestinians. “It feels wrong to me-and inappropriately
partisan-to give expression to only one side,” wrote one person in the e-mail
debate. As of this writing, there has been no resolution. If in the coming
weeks, however, we are treated to photographs of young Palestinians nibbling
overseas homentaschen , I would bet
they came from Ansche Chesed.
Suckers and Philo-Semites
When the Oslo accords were signed, a smart man I know said
that Israel was making a terrible mistake. This man was not a rightist and
wanted peace as much as anyone. But not this peace. He warned that Yasir Arafat
would prove to be uninterested in arriving at such a peace, and if he did get
interested he would prove incapable of delivering it, for he would be cut down
by his own side. (A different smart man later swore that it was the Mossad who
has kept Mr. Arafat alive these past few years.)
I shrugged this off as cynicism. I did not know what Mr.
Arafat truly wanted, but I did know that Bill Clinton was too ambitious to fail
and that Yitzhak Rabin was too seasoned to be fooled.
Maybe Rabin would have been. That, at least, is a convenient
fantasy. An Israeli friend calls her country’s recent voting history “a
collective schizophrenia”-from Rabin to Benjamin Netanyahu to Ehud Barak to
Ariel Sharon-and says, “We still haven’t made our accounting with the murder of
Rabin; we’re still in the death spasm.”
And so it was Mr. Barak who sat down with Yasir Arafat at
Camp David, and who put on the table everything and then some, including
Jerusalem. (The inclusion of Jerusalem was more upsetting to many American
Jews, who see it as a metaphor for all Israel, than for many Israelis, who see
it as a nest of zealotry.) And Mr. Arafat responded like the high-school kid
who reaches up for a high-five and pulls his hand away at the last second. When
I think of modern Israel as a character, I think of many roles: pioneer,
warrior, pietist, pragmatist, chicken farmer, nightclubber, maybe a dozen more.
But I had never thought of sucker before, and now that I did, I didn’t much
care for it.
As Ariel Sharon would discover, there were plenty of people
to blame. In alphabetical order: Mr. Arafat (for bad faith), Mr. Barak (for
what a former staffer calls “impenetrable arrogance, almost a social autism”),
Mr. Clinton (for pushing Rabin and then
Mr. Barak into Mr. Arafat’s embrace with too much gusto and self-interest).
Could it be that Mr. Clinton, the great philo-Semite, will
turn out to have been bad for the Jews? Put aside for a moment his awkward
stewardship of the peace talks (although do understand that Israel was so
Clinton-crazy that, when he attended peace meetings at the Hilton in Netanya,
the hotel changed its rooftop sign to read “Clinton”). The pardon of Marc Rich
took its worst turn when Mr. Clinton wrote an op-ed explanation whose thrust
was that … the Israelis made him do it. (There seems to be no forthcoming
explanation for commuting the sentences of the four crooked New Square rabbis,
which is just as well.) The American Jewish establishment, eager to sample Mr.
Rich’s celebrated largesse, responded with an uncharacteristic silence. So Mr.
Clinton’s explanation hung there like an end-of-the-party helium balloon that
nobody had the height to pop. If Joe Lieberman was fresh air for the American
Jewish psyche-turning some folks giddy but making others hyperventilate-Mr.
Clinton’s explanation smelled all too familiar and all too rank. With
philo-Semites like these, who needs anti’s? But how we scurry to justify! A
Jewish businessman I know, even though he is a Clinton hater, assured me that
Mr. Clinton couldn’t discuss the best reason for the pardon: that Marc Rich
carried out invaluable dirty-hands work for the U.S. in countries where neither
our flag nor Israel’s is welcome. I perked up at this news, of course. How nice
it would be to think that, in return for being scapegoated by Bill Clinton,
Israel got something more than just a few million dollars for the Philharmonic.
The Great P.R. Debate
As things fall apart in Israel, the American center cannot
hold. Extremists on either end become more so, and moderates are sprinting
toward the edges.
“I was in a taxi today, and the driver had taped to the back
of the partition that image of the Palestinian boy,” says a man I know, a
documentary filmmaker. “I started talking to him. I’ve become sensitized to the
other side. I was before, but now I’m really questioning the validity of the
“I was a staunch
supporter of the Arabs having their own state, even though it was nuanced
belief,” says another friend, a female book editor. “But they lost me totally
on the day they lynched those Israeli boys. Seeing the picture of their hands
dripping blood-that lynching was the Rubicon for me.” Friend No. 2, when told
of Friend No. 1’s conversion, voices the oft-heard protest: The Palestinians
have great P.R., and the Israelis’ P.R. stinks. How else could Israel come
across as the villain after having its peace offer spat on?
“The Palestinians have people who can really convince you
that Israel treated them bad, and they talk to people’s emotion,” says a former
Israeli journalist living in New York. “When Israeli speakers come here, they
fail big-time. Their English is no good. And they’re arrogant. They always
think, ‘We are smarter and better and the world is going to understand us much
Then there is the American Colony Factor. The American
Colony is the graceful, romantic hotel in East Jerusalem where the world press
corps stays whenever an intifada is playing, and which is also something of a
salon for the Palestinian intelligentsia. Covering an intifada from the
American Colony is not quite the same as covering the White House from the
Lincoln Bedroom, but whatever bias it leads to is surely not in the Israelis’
So Israel needs publicists? Well, New York is full of them.
America already sends Israel its Stan Greenbergs and Arthur Finkelsteins; why
not also a Howard Rubenstein type?
Do not be surprised if this happens soon; indeed, a
full-scale Israel branding campaign might soon break out. One P.R. guy says he
would serve happily: “Neither Israel nor the American Jewish community can
continue to do things as they have over the last 40 years,” he says. “It’s a
new world, and one of the things that’s been lost is an entire generation of
Jewish Americans. So you go to people and they’re raising money for the
Clintons and AIDS awareness and Holocaust museums, but why aren’t they raising
money and consciousness for Israel and for peace in the Middle East? Because, I
contend, American Jews of this generation think of Israel as they think of
their parents: We love them, but if they’re not doing well, we still want to
believe they are.”
Meanwhile, the hotels in
Israel are empty (except the American Colony). In New York, we wring hands and
construct allegories. Thank God for e-mail. “We feel that we’re in a bad
period,” my cousins wrote last week. “People like us from the left wing have
many question marks. Also the self security has been damaged. We pray for
better times. But if you could only see us, you would never believe it’s so
difficult here. Life continues like always. We buy new plants for the garden.
We had four lemons on our lemon tree. Two figs, and we will have a lot of
shesek. You wanna know what is it? You have to come here! It’s a special fruit.
Kisses to all.”