Ert & Bernie: Done Too Soon

Dearest B-Boy,

Done too soon. But also finished wonderfully, with consideration and love. Not like the last time. Thank you for a glorious ten days of showing me your new country. Thank you also for keeping us off those wretched tour buses where you ride around like you’re in some hermetically sealed capsule, see only what they want you to see, experience nothing for yourself.

I understand a great deal better now, why you came. I could never live here. But what I came to learn, I learned.

Or did I?

Where to start? Perhaps by telling you that I was right not to share these thoughts until I got on the plane and began to sort them out. We’re about an hour out of JFK and they’re sorted. More or less. They’re complex. But on balance, I’m absolutely certain that I’m right.

I also don’t know.

Let’s start with the obvious. The incredible physical beauty of the place. Also, the variety and the smallness. One minute we’re driving through what looks like the Shenandoah. Five minutes later, we’re on the Great Plains. Five minutes after that, California. What a glorious miniature of a country.

I wish I could be as effusive about the people. OK, it takes all kinds, and we met some very gracious, charming men and women. The Ethiopians were a special delight. But I was, to put it frankly, appalled by the arrogance and the rudeness we kept running into. Memories I’ve taken with me:

The constant petty bullying and dominance posturing.

Standing at a bus stop, watching half a dozen passengers shoving and jostling to get on an empty bus.

That cashier in the Russian store, screaming at me because I gave her a bill and not correct change.

The hate-filled stares we kept getting from your Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boys. And older women. More from the women than the boys. Far more.

The bragging about how Israel “stands up to” the United States, rather like a spoiled adolescent crowing over how disrespectful he can be to his father. That one guy in the café, fuming how Obama won’t invite Netanyahu to the White House. Ain’t he never heard that old adage, “You don’t behave, you don’t get invited back.”

Speaking of adolescents:

The young Israelis we encountered, especially the soldiers, were as a group the most impressive, yea, admirable young people I’ve ever seen. Wish I could say the same about those American kids we ran across coming out of that, what did you call it, absorption center that was being used for training and pre-Aliyah programs. Snot-nosed children, know-it-alls, always ready to refute whatever you haven’t said, spouting propaganda talking-points like little wind-up dolls. If that’s what you expect to defend you back home, good luck.

Tell them, and all of Israel, to brag a bit less, complain a lot less, and try talking to us like we were people, not potential useful idiots.

And, oh yes. After that day in the Territories, OK, Ariel and someplace else, it became obvious that they’re going to be kept. And should be kept. Just as you should keep and encourage your Arab middle class that Americans never hear about.

Now to the heavier stuff.

In one way, Israel and America are alike. Two countries that have lost their way, who know that the ways they’re living can’t go on forever, but don’t know what to do next. Or would it be more accurate to say that Israel and America don’t want to know what to do next? America we don’t have to discuss here. But I came away from Israel with a sense that the country’s being slowly crushed, from within.

Crushed under the weight of its militarism, its religion, its politics, its absorption of too many bad parts of Western popular culture. Corruption everywhere. And everywhere accepted as the norm.

Israel, for all the success, for all the brilliance, for all the courage – it’s still not, I don’t know how to describe it, still not willing to be part of the world. Maybe the world, including those who wish Israel well, knows it.

The complicated explanations I’ll leave to others. But I’m certain that, deep down, I’m right.

I’m right that Israel has become a stranger to itself. I’m right, it’s obvious that the ideals of the founding have faded, but nothing has yet replaced them. Most of all, I’m right that extremists of all kinds thrive in such situations. They’re thriving now.

But let me balance this a bit. I also got, over and over, a sense that Israel’s almost right, that some very small changes could open the way to an incredible burst of new creativity and accomplishment. What very small changes? Hanged if I know. But that’s why you came here, isn’t it? To maybe participate in those things that would turn almost into something far better.

Am I even coherent about this? Or is it that, when describing Israel, too much coherence gets in the way of understanding? And reality’s rarely as coherent as we might like.

Oh, well. Time to get ready to land, sleep off the jet lag, then start to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Guess I’m kinda like Israel in that.

Thanks again, my former love and always and forever friend.

L’Hitraot. Somehow. And yes, as you say, Am Yisroel Chai.


About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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