JERUSALEM — It was a beautiful Friday morning as I lingered in a downtown cafe, drinking coffee, lost in thought and watching the Israelis strolling about, enjoying their day readying themselves for Shabbat which would begin at sundown.
My wife Sally, here with me from Birmingham, Alabama to participate in a Jewish Federations of North America program, that would begin two days later, had deposited me at the perfect place — where I could drink my coffee, play with my iPhone, read and reflect on the news, and watch the world go by.
A few hours before that, right when we got up, she asked me, “Has the President done anything new today?” I smiled and answered, “Sally, he hasn’t done anything yet — it’s still the middle of the night back home!” (Though I guess that doesn’t preclude Presidential tweeting.)
I found myself thinking about that conversation as I sat playing with my phone and taking a fun selfie — in my Alabama hat, of course — to send to some friends back home. The difference in time zones between Jerusalem and Birmingham, plus getting away, was a nice reprieve from the political rancor and divisiveness so prevalent today in the US.
And then I noted the irony: Coming to Israel, which often is thought of as a boiling cauldron — a place full of political, religious, ethnic and security tensions — felt like none of the above on this sunshine-lit Friday morning. Things were as tranquil as could be.
Part of this is because the media, by focusing disproportionately on conflict, often paints an exaggerated picture of Israel. Part of it may be that the Israelis over the decades have adapted to the tensions plaguing their society and have gotten quite good at leading normal lives despite constant pressures and uncertainties. Part of it may be the eternal Jewish belief, probably stemming from our relationship with God and unique and redemptive historical saga, that everything, in the end, will be okay.
Whatever the reasons, the irony for me on this Jerusalem morning was that Israel was a great place for this coffee-drinking American “to get away from it all.”
Before leaving Birmingham, I told a friend that I had signed up for a day of programming in the West Bank — joking that it would also be a “get away from it all.” And yes, perhaps bizarrely, the thought of meeting with Israelis and Palestinians in the tension-laden West Bank was more soothing to me than hearing my friends, family, co-workers and Facebook friends argue bitterly about Donald Trump.
LEARNING FROM ISRAELIS
As I was sitting there drinking my coffee, I came across a column on my phone by well-known Alabama journalist John Archibald that included a comment that tied in perfectly with what I’d been thinking. “We’ve reached a stunning point where Americans see each other as enemies, where we apologize for the failures and forgive the lies of those with whom we agree while we attack those who differ and tag them with labels that instantly marginalize,” wrote Archibald.
His observation further confirmed to me that maybe there is a lesson here that we Americans can learn from our Israeli friends: That is to accept the fact that with the ascension of Donald Trump, regardless of how one feels about him, the US has entered an era of acute tension.
Perhaps the best way to deal with the tension, which is unlikely to go away soon, is to just accept it: Not to like it, not to refrain from advancing one’s own beliefs, but in the end to calm down and realize, as the Israelis have done for decades despite their differences, that we are all in this together. Those with whom we disagree are not going to disappear. Tension can become normalized which can open the door to it becoming minimized.
Well…I’m now done with my coffee, my wife Sally has come back to find me for us to move on to our next stop. In a few hours I’ll send my selfie to some friends back home, once I’m sure they’re awake and that an incoming email won’t disturb their sleep. Is the miracle that I actually know what a selfie is, can take one and send it to Birmingham, Alabama, 6000 miles away instantaneously once I hit send?
No, that’s a fascination.
The miracle is that in the year 2017, the Jews are back in their biblical homeland, living in a sovereign Jewish country, though profoundly divided on a multitude of issues; yet, totally united in their devotion to their country, and willing to die for one another if need be.
Can we say this same thing about the dedication of Americans to our country and to one another? Hopefully yes, though in this era of divisiveness only time will tell.