An Immigrant On The Brink of Election

In Israel, unlike in the United States, the Jewish story feels in motion, evolving and changing dramatically what seems like every day.
October 26, 2022
Print house workers roll up campaign posters that show former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister and Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid and United Arab List Party leader Mansour Abbas on October 19, 2022 in Rosh HaAyin, Israel (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

“Rule Number One: Don’t Discuss Politics with an Israeli.” Several Israelis gave me this advice upon my announcement that I would be moving to Tel Aviv this fall. If I barely spoke the language, if I had not served in the IDF, and if I had never feverishly texted my friends to make sure they were safe after a terrorist opened fire at a local bar, then it would be best to listen, rather than to speak. After all, what could be more obnoxious than an American immigrant arriving at Ben Gurion Airport and wasting no time in spouting off his opinions about who Israelis should vote for and which issues they should care about most? Such behavior is regarded as self-indulgent and arrogant, I was warned. Since officially becoming an Israeli, I have learned that “Rule Number One” is strict for a reason, as it originates in a fundamental difference between how Israelis and Diaspora Jews (most commonly Americans) view the Jewish state. 

At the time I am writing this, I have been an Israeli for exactly one month. Every day since my arrival here has been plagued by the hellfire of Israeli government bureaucracy. I’ve needed to (and still need to) sort out banking, housing, healthcare, Hebrew school classes, my work schedule, my passport, phone plan, and how to transport large pieces of furniture for the lowest price available. Needless to say, it’s been a challenge. The Israelis around me are fumbling with similar headaches, though usually with better Hebrew. If Tel Aviv was once a playground for me, reserved for vacations, now it is beginning to appear the way most Israelis see it: merely ground. On this ground, parents run to pick up their children from school, young people struggle to pay rent, and the line for the supermarket is too damn long and nobody cares that you have a meeting in ten minutes. “The banality of special,” I have coined this feeling. Yes, everyone living here knows they are in the Holy Land. Yes, we know we are the Jewish people’s wildest dreams come to life, and yes, we are reminded every day that this city is perhaps the most spectacular achievement in the modern world. Yet we carry on with our lives in the same way as people all over the world because what else would we do?

Israeli Jews are the symbolic Jews, the Jews who would decide the fate of the Jewish people around the world, the Jews who were on the frontlines of grand political and spiritual battles.

When considering their Israeli cousins, American Jews see only the special, and little of the banal. Israeli Jews are never just people to us. It is hard to imagine them going through the same quotidian motions of any average New Yorker. Israeli Jews are the symbolic Jews, the Jews who would decide the fate of the Jewish people around the world, the Jews who were on the frontlines of grand political and spiritual battles. Israel was a morality play, where good and evil were expected to clash in flashing headlines on a regular basis. In the Spring 2021 Edition of Sapir Journal, Dr. Einat Wilf considers a phrase, “Disneyland of Hate,” which characterizes those not living in Israel’s view of the land between the river and the sea.  She writes: 

For those outside the actual Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was a safe — Disneyland — way of experiencing a roller coaster of intense emotions missing from their dull post-peace lives. In a world that is actually more peaceful than ever, and where negative, violence-related emotions, such as hatred — and especially hatred of groups and collectives — are less legitimate than ever, the continuing acceptance of hatred for Israel endures.

If boredom of one’s own political reality is in fact a catalyst to some people vocally hating Israel, then perhaps it also leads American Jews to grow more obsessed with Israel. Many American Jews still imagine the land of milk and honey as if it were a perpetual scene in the film “Exodus” with Paul Newman’s dashing blonde hair. We invest a great deal of emotional energy in Israel, because for many of us, it is a fantasy of maximum importance. It is fantasy that reminds us we are Jewish and that we are special, especially in a society increasingly obsessed with group identity. 

In 2021, author Ben Judah wrote a review of “The Netanyahus” by Joshua Cohen, a fictionalized historical Jewish drama for which Cohen earned the Pulitzer Prize. Judah explains how he relates to Cohen in that they are both obsessed with Jews: with thinking about Jews, reading about Jews and writing about Jews. But Judah becomes more introspective later in his piece, writing:

“We’re not really obsessed with Jews. We’re obsessed with dead Jews, or we’re obsessed with Israelis … Wherever the energy is in American Jewish letters right now—from the anti-Zionist polemics in Jewish Currents to the anti-anti-Zionists polemics in Tablet—it is about Israel. Wherever the crazes are—’Fauda,’ the secret missions of the IDF, ‘Shtisel,’ the secret lives of ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem — it is not about us as Americans, as Diaspora Jews, but them.

Judah continues: “It’s almost like we’ve lost interest in ourselves, out here, in America, as a culture. That the Big Jewish Novelists, who decorate Cohen’s endorsement page, have taken to writing about Israel reflects something bigger. That after the big joke in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ got old — that being Jewish in America after assimilation meant nothing but cringe — there was nothing left to say.”

Herein lies the disconnect between how Israelis and American Jews understand Israel — the disconnect that leads to the creation of Rule Number One. The last thing any Israeli wants to hear is a grand pronouncement on how to make peace with the Palestinians from someone who has never even been to Israel. They do not want to hear their existences dramatized and romanticized in westernized stage productions. 

On the other hand, I would not be telling the truth if I said that right before a pivotal election in Israel, I did not feel defensive of my fellow arrogant Diaspora Jews. In seeing posters of Netanyahu’s Likud Party on my way to the coffee shop, watching protests with the green flags of Meretz marching down Rothschild Boulevard, and keeping up with the latest news of the maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon, I cannot help but feel there is a part of this dynamic that Israeli Jews do not understand. Quite simply, Israelis fail to grasp what Ben Judah writes of in his review of “The Netanyahus,” that American Jews, especially those who are more secular and more assimilated, find incredible meaning in the trials and tribulations of Israel.

But in considering the dilemmas of the Jewish state, American Jews are taken to a world outside of the blue and white Hanukkah decorations at CVS, to a world where our Jewishness actually matters.

This incredible meaning did not spring from nowhere. American Judaism used to be defined by Yiddish newspapers, theater, great novelists, great strides in medicine and entertainment, and was emboldened by the accomplishment of seizing the American Dream and making the most of it. Most of that, unfortunate as it is, is gone. “Maybe those novels of the immigrant experience can’t be written by people like us anymore,” Judah continues. “Perhaps they can only be written by Mexican American or Asian American writers and we should stop trying. We’re just too much a part of the furniture.” But in considering the dilemmas of the Jewish state, American Jews are taken to a world outside of the blue and white Hanukkah decorations at CVS, to a world where our Jewishness actually matters. We feel connected to our history, to our families, and to our people. 

I have a wonderful community of friends here in Tel Aviv. Some of us speak Hebrew, some only a little, some not at all (but learning). Some of us served in the IDF, some of us did not. Some of us came from South Africa, some from Boston, others Melbourne or Russia. Our conversations at the bars outside of Dizengoff Square are routinely enveloped in rigorous discussion about politics: the prospects of Itamar Ben-Gvir becoming a minister in the next government, about what really failed in the implementation of the Oslo Accords, and about how long the secular Israeli public will continue financing the Haredi community without organized protest. These discussions do more than stimulate our minds and sharpen our knowledge about current affairs. They remind us why we made aliyah. They remind us of what our values are, what our purpose is in this country, and what being Jewish means to each. They inspire our careers in journalism, activism and non-profit work, and motivate us to seek out new opportunities in different fields. They encourage us to further acclimate into Israeli culture, so that we will have more credibility in presenting innovative ideas and commenting on the news of the day. With this perspective in mind, I hope Israelis can slowly see a bit more benefit to their obnoxious Jewish counterparts, who chose to pack up and leave to Israel and to become engrossed in its complexities rather than succumb to the ever-attractive pull of assimilation in their home countries.

The upcoming Israeli election is an example of the disconnect between the banal and the special. To Israelis, elections have been a yearly occurrence for quite some time. Campaign commercials have been clogging their televisions for what feels like forever, so why should the nauseating merry-go-round of “who will be PM?” take center-stage in any conversation? To most Israelis, there is hardly anything remarkable about voting in the world’s only Jewish country, the only expression of Jewish self-determination. They forget that Rabbi Moshe Yekutiel Alpert, so moved by the experience, dressed in his Shabbos clothes to visit the ballot box on the morning of Israel’s first election in 1949. He wrote that he carried his Israeli identification card to the voting booth as if it were the Torah on Simchat Torah and that after the deed was done, he let out a joyous Shechechyanu—“Because after thousands of years or more of exile, that since the six days of creation, we have never been blessed with such a day, to be able to go and vote in the Jewish state. Blessed is the One who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this time.”

I relate to Rabbi Alpert. As an American who did not grow up here, I am absolutely exhilarated to see which way this country bends on November 1st. I am becoming less embarrassed in saying this. Growing up, I did not have the parables of Bernard Malamud or the stories of Henry Roth that waxed on Jewish-American life in tenement buildings. I didn’t have Phillip Roth’s musings on the place of American Jews during World War Two. I didn’t see Fanny Brice on stage, and I didn’t have access to a Freiheit newspaper edition at my local corner store. This was all part of the past, commentary on the Jews of yesterday. I was so submerged in the American melting pot that there was hardly any difference between my family and the other ingredients. This cultural emptiness, compounded with a lack of interest in Jewish religious ritual or the lessons of the Talmud, was a perfect recipe for yet another American Jew giving up on his identity. 

But that is where the wonder of Israel comes in. In Israel, unlike in the United States, the Jewish story feels in motion, evolving and changing dramatically what seems like every day. Every Jew who lives in Israel has a direct stake in the destiny of a nation. Their choices determine what kind of country Israel will become, which affects every Jew living all over the Diaspora in one way or another. To American Jews reaching desperately for a way to connect with the tribe, such a prospect is irresistible. 

Famed Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky once said of Jews who have no connection to faith and simultaneously no connection to Israel that their grandchildren will not be Jewish — will not feel Jewish. This is undoubtedly true. As the wave of secularity crashes over the heads of younger generations, without an attachment to a particular Jewish nationality, what else is left? So no, I cannot in good conscience adhere to Rule Number One. I will not just keep quiet and eat my shakshuka and post pictures of the beach and the Old City on Instagram. I connect to Judaism by learning everything is there is to know about what makes Israel tick, by engrossing myself in scholars of Israeli history and in polemics on the State of Israel today. If we encouraged such engagement among more young Jews in the Diaspora, perhaps on the college campus we would all get better at defending Israel, perhaps we would feel more tethered to our identities, and perhaps we would make the Jewish State much, much stronger.

Blake Flayton is the New Media Director and Columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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