I’ve been thinking of my husband’s aunt Fella, z”l. Fella was much younger than my husband’s dad. Born in Poland, she was hidden, so the story goes, with nuns, and sent to Israel after the war. Fella was slim, elegant and cultured; she and her family lived on a small side street, flanked by dusty pines, in a classy neighborhood in Haifa. From the picture windows in her cool, shady living room, you could look out over the city.
As in many Israeli homes in the 1980s, the TV was on in the background, even during meals or when visitors dropped by. And on the TV, there was, more often than not, some sort of news programming.
We were new olim. To understand Hebrew, we still had to frown with concentration, so the flow of the language, like water in a fast shoal, was running through our fingers, too slippery to catch. But just when we were getting the hang of conversing while another voice was droning on distractingly, Fella stopped and pointed a finger at the TV. “Imports from America,” she said angrily, practically spitting.
She was referring to Rabbi Moshe Levinger and Daniella Weiss, two leaders of the West Bank Jewish settlement movement.
Now we were thoroughly confused. Levinger and Weiss, as were most of the settlers, were as Israel-born as they come. Was she referring to the American funding that was pouring into the settlements? And, being imports from America, ourselves, were we supposed to be embarrassed?
No, she was referring to the ultra-right-wing Kach political party (whose blatant racism made it illegal, at the time). The party was founded by Meir Kahane, an immigrant from the US. Kahane, before coming to Israel, had started the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in New York.
In principle, the idea of Jews learning to defend themselves was appealing, especially to those of us who grew up on Holocaust lore. We pictured kids practicing jujitsu with a Brooklyn accent. And, since we were now officially Israeli, we asked ourselves: Isn’t that what the two weeks between Passover and Independence Day are all about? They killed an unfathomably large number of us, we learned to defend ourselves, some more of us died, but after 75 years, our country is still on the map.
Of course, even before Kahane came to Israel, his focus and that of his organization were not exactly pure self-defense classes. Kids were going to summer camp and getting paramilitary training. The ideology they were absorbing was one of paranoia, on the one hand (someone is always out to get you), and Jewish supremacy, on the other.
Kahane may have come from America; he may even have stepped off the plane with a full-fledged plan; but he was less of an “import” in a country made of immigrants, more like seed that fell on fertile soil. Our national narrative, to put it simply, is that someone is always out to get us, and we prevail. Add to that some messianic ideas – it belongs to us just because we’re Jews – and the idea of moving Jews into Hebron almost makes sense.
Today we’ve come full circle: The Kohelet Policy Forum is being pictured as a shadowy American think-tank that is pushing the judicial reform upon an unsuspecting Israeli public. Even the New York Times, in its headlines, wrote: “Kohelet, the once-obscure think tank that conceived and now champions a revamped court system, is an American import.”
The ghost of Aunt Fella is alive and well, and still pointing an accusatory finger. In truth, the Kohelet Policy Forum is an Israel-based think tank run by an American who made aliyah the same year I did: 1980. The Forum is backed, it is true, by a wealthy American. But, as we have come to learn in the current economic crisis, brought on by government policy, we are all funded, on some level, by America.
And over 40 years later, I still cringe when I hear those words “American import.” Make no mistake, those who developed the so-called judicial reform based it much more on an instinctive conservative allergy to the court system and on rabbinical texts than on anything its founder may have learned about checks and balances in his American high school. And I’ll just say it now: I take no credit or responsibility for my fellow “American imports.”
We can be as different as Doritos and iPhones. But quite honestly, after 40 years, are we any more or less imported that the former Russians, Yemenites, Ethiopians or Iranians who came in those years, or the Germans, Romanians, Iraqis and Moroccans before us? Can we stop blaming Americans for our own, very Israeli folly?