The Book Club

Israel Isn’t a Real Country for Most American Jews

Dear Shmuel,

Stop apologizing! It’s bothering me that you’re not conforming to stereotype. An Israeli who apologizes for rudeness? What next? Are you going to tell me that you wait patiently in lines? I think you’ve been in America too long. I don’t know how you’re going to survive back home, when your tour of duty in the diaspora ends. Remember: Use of the term “excuse me” in your homeland is a sign of fatal weakness.

You’re onto something here—Israel isn’t, in many ways, a real country to me, even though I lived there for several years and go back and forth with some frequency. Part of this might be because my vocational specialty is the Arab-Israeli conflict, and part of this is because the great geniuses of the Israeli army’s manpower branch dispatched me to a prison camp filled with Palestinians.

But here’s a bit of news for you: Israel isn’t a real country for most American Jews. It’s a place of myth and hope and fantasy and crushing disappointment and embarrassment and pride, but it’s not a real country populated by real people with quotidian concerns, like your friend with the coffee maker.

And here’s something else, not entirely unrelated: One of the great lies spread by the propagandists of the organized Jewish community in America and the paid flacks of the Israeli government in Jerusalem is the famous old UJA slogan, “We are one.” That is to say, American Jews and Israeli Jews are separated only by physical distance—and nothing else. Well, we’re not one. We American Jews—and I count myself as one, again—are very American in many ways, and we’re also very diaspora-ish, which is to say, we’re ironic, and self-deprecating, and violence-averse; while you people (to borrow from Ross Perot) are a completely alien species: rougher, more bombastic, more tribal, given only intermittently to collective self-doubt, comfortable with physical power (maybe too comfortable on occasion), frequently rude as hell, and, by the way, not very funny. (I know—I’m generalizing, so you don’t have to list for me all the funny Israelis you know.) I’ve always thought the reason so many Israelis lack humor is because Israel has an air force. Who needs jokes when you have F-16s?

In other words, it was one of the signal shocks of my life—maybe the signal shock, in fact—to find out that Israel wasn’t simply the Upper West Side with sand.

I’m getting to a point here, so have patience with me.

When I was in the army, in the prison camp in the Negev, I would sometimes do things that made my Israeli comrades (not fake Israeli or aspirational Israeli, like me, but real Israelis) gasp: I went through extended bouts of bleeding-heartedness, when I thought that by being nice to the Palestinians I could make them hate us less. (We’ll get around to this subject in a later conversation, I hope.) When I would give my back to the prisoners—physically or metaphorically—my fellow soldiers would scold me with some variation of the following: “Jeff, you’re not from here, you just don’t understand the mentality of the Arabs.”

The mentality of the Arabs? What I didn’t understand was the mentality of the Israelis.

Let me state it plainly: I had a hard time getting along with Israelis. Many of us American Jews have a hard time with Israelis. Behind the propaganda, there’s a great deal of tension, but I’m sure you know that. We love Israelis, of course—you are, in blood and faith, our brothers—but sometimes you’re not the easiest people to get on with. I came to realize much later that Israelis might just be the most generous people in the world, but in my years in Israel I wasn’t focused on the generosity of the society so much as its coarseness. I do, in fact, address this very real side of life in Israel in the book.

(By the way, I’m well-aware of the Israeli critique of American Jews, and I don’t disagree with much of it. The condescension and ignorance of many American Jews—and their leaders, in particular—must be constantly galling to you. Every time I see an American-Jewish “mission” in Israel, my blood boils: The very word mission suggests that these American-Jewish leaders still see you as stunted refugees, and not citizens of an advanced, and wealthy, society.)

To bring this back to the Palestinians: I do believe that peace is personal, as well as political, and I’ll give you an example: checkpoints. I’m sure you’ve been to the army’s West Bank checkpoints, and I’m sure you’ve been disturbed by the behavior of the soldiers who man them. I’m not arguing against checkpoints, by the way; they stop suicide bombers, and that is the important thing. But the crudeness and rudeness that is directed at the mass of innocent Palestinians by the 19-year-old soldiers at these checkpoints is not only maddening but also self-defeating. When I’m crossing a checkpoint, I often want to explain to the Palestinians: “Don’t worry, they’re not yelling at you because you’re Arab. This is the way they even talk to each other.”

The problem is political, of course, and I’m not going to deny that, but I’ve never understood the unnecessary cruelty that is sometimes embedded in Israel’s necessary acts of self-defense.

I believe I have just delivered a rant, and my apologies for it (there I go, typical diaspora Jew, apologizing for everything). But you are perceptive to note that my book is about an American-Jewish experience in Israel, and this, I think, is what set me off. Even after all these years, my feelings about Israel are still raw and intense and conflicted. Which makes me a typical American Jew.

I shouldn’t be surprised by your observations, by the way, because you are making a name for yourself as an excellent anthropologist of American-Jewish habits and customs. I promise to get this dialogue back to the subject of peace, but I’m curious to hear you—in all your Israeli bluntness—on the subject of American Jews and their strange relationship to your country.