Jasmine, Lemon Trees, and an Eerie Lack of Argument

When I arrived in Jerusalem as a fifth-grader, one of the most stunning discoveries I made was that Israeli 10-year-olds debated politics the way American kids debate whether Superman is dating Wonder Woman, or who was the best shortstop ever. Israeli school kids could name every Cabinet minister and (in sharp contrast to my own Love Boat-dulled senses) understood the nuances of land-for-peace deals better than most American adults. More than once, playground fistfights broke out over the advisability of signing a peace agreement with Egypt. I got by with trying to pretend I might be able to identify Egypt on a map.

Israel was, at that time, a great shouting argument. People literally stopped cars on streets to scream at each other over politics. At night, cafes shook with the sounds of angry policy debates. My parents’ dinner parties looked like a cross between Apocalypse Now and the Oxford Union. I hated it: Why should a paradise of jasmine and olives and lemons be deadened by what looked to be a sort of Jeffersonian wet dream? Why were all these smart people shouting and hollering and sweating at one another?

To my mind, the concrete manifestation of all this was the proliferation of bumper stickers on Israeli cars. Whereas the average American had, at most, some semi-self-congratulatory announcement of where they’d attended college, Israelis had political dissertations arrayed along their bumpers and rear windows, laying out policy preferences on every issue from the location of the northern border to the future of the Sinai desert. The highway was a cacophony of cars shrieking at you to rethink your political choices, right there on the road to Netanya. I always assumed Israelis to be such shockingly bad drivers precisely because they had so much policy to work through on the road.

Today as we drive to Tel Aviv, Caesarea, Zichron Ya’akov, and onto Haifa, the bumpers are silent. I try to attribute this to the fact that Israelis drive nicer cars now than they did 20 years ago. But the truth is revealed at tea tonight with some favorite great-aunts, who’ve been holding their own in political shouting matches since they moved here from Iraq 50 years ago. Says the 90-year-old, “There is nothing more to say.” She mostly tries to trust in God now. But she won’t be drawn into debate.

The cafes here are very quiet, and the streets look like Sweden. The op-ed pages still show signs of political dissention, but on the streets, it sounds like Israelis don’t know what to say anymore. There is no policy or program to holler about. This is not a sign of some newfound Israeli mellowness. Israel was always about talking and talking and talking until there was a way out. But with nothing left to talk about, with the feeling there’s no way out, it’s just a place full of lemon trees and jasmine and silence.