Varda Spiegel

Israel had smug style liberalism first

When I first made aliyah, 30+ years ago, I consoled my homesick self with the mantra, “Whatever America’s got will get here in five years.” Malls, chocolate chips, chunky peanut butter, a second television channel that wasn’t Jordan, cable, satellite, and even women’s health care eventually washed up on our shores.

Decades went by, I was still here, Israel became Startup Nation, and the incubation accelerators went into overdrive. We were getting first-run films within weeks rather than months and – despite or maybe because of BDS — senescent rock stars were packing local stadiums. I no longer carried three empty suitcases to my annual visits to the Bay Area because we had H&M – not to mention Prada.

My first thought when I switched on CNN at 4:00 AM Wednesday morning to watch election results roll in: We’ve surpassed the US. And not in a good way.

Sure, my prophetic, journalist husband said before dropping off, “I’m napping for an hour before work, because I’m sick of falling asleep with one national leader and waking up with another.” I knew he was talking about the infamous elections of 1996, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumped the shoe-in, late president Shimon Peres z”l. But we’ve been married for 35 years, and this kind of pillow talk is no longer compelling. I slept like a baby.

It wasn’t long after I woke up that the word “déjà vu” began appearing in my local friends’ FB posts; and before they began Israelisplaining to their American counterparts how to tell one’s kids in the morning that the bad guy – the guy who had relied on xenophobic tropes like Bibi’s warning in 2015, that ‘droves of Arabs’ were flowing to the polling stations — had won.

“Been there. Done that,” I thought, as disbelieving tears streamed down my face and the first-day-of-school stomach sent me rushing to the toilet.

But that’s not all I have been and done in my decades of living here.

I watched a Nevada casino owner launch a free-of-cost slanted newspaper in Israel in 2007, to champion his candidate for Prime Minister of Israel. He bought the Las Vegas Review Journal in December, 2015.

I watched a president of Israel, who was indicted on rape charges in 2007, resign his presidency. He’s still serving time.

I watched a Justice Minister propose a bill that would reshape the Supreme Court, in a way that would relegate checks and balances to the supermarket.

And I watched a prime minister — who is also coincidentally the communications minister — attempt to hamstring public broadcasting, in a way that would relegate freedom of the press to the drycleaner’s.

We Israelis are way ahead of you Americans on this.

And because there is no two-term limit on the Israeli premiership, I have been watching this stuff unfold for the 10 years that Bibi has been in office.

I have done many things in the name of “peace” and “justice” and “women’s rights,” and I have worked to elect candidates whom I believed would move us toward those objectives — earning less than a man would in my position and fleeing terror and missiles in my own neighborhood. And I have heard a corrupt government promise time and again to drain our swamp and secure our rights and safety.

Raised in American poverty, I credit California’s then-affordable state university system and my Holocaust-surviving parents’ insistence that I overachieve, with catapulting me into what Emmett Rensin eloquently described as “The smug style in American liberalism.”

After graduating from nursing school, with one small suitcase and only a few hundred dollars in my bank account I carried that same smug style with me to a kibbutz in Israel in 1978, where I gleefully discovered that I shared that smug style with my mainly American peers. Yeah, we talked Labor Zionism and Peace Now and Occupation. But we also took great pains to produce oatmeal cookies, White Russians, and Chinese take-out in a kibbutz kitchen. We were communal, but people had original Rosenquists hanging on their walls and private bank accounts in Ramle, long before kibbutz privatization was a thing.

I left the kibbutz but continued to religiously attend peace demonstrations in the 70s and the 80s and the 90s. I was there with my youngest in a posh Combi stroller when Rabin was assassinated.

I too lamented the lack in the crowd of religious Jews, and Jews whose families came to Israel from Arab and North African countries. I too bemoaned our failure to persuade them that the settlers over the Green Line were living in villas at their expense. I too wrung my hands over the movement’s failure to reach out to people who couldn’t “finish the month” on what they earned at blue and pink collar jobs.

Now I hear many of you in America grappling with the question of how to talk to the likes of me.

I read Garrison Keillor rave, “To all the patronizing B.S. we’ve read about Trump expressing the working-class’s displacement and loss of the American Dream, I say, “Feh!” — go put your head under cold water. Resentment is no excuse for bald-faced stupidity.”

Over single-malt Scotch with my Ivy-league educated peers, I didn’t share that my cheeks stung when they asked whether I really “had to work” my way through college. I didn’t tell the guy who yelled to his wife when we were introduced, “We love nurses – don’t we, dear?” — that I was relieved I hadn’t ticked the “French maid” box as a career choice.

But I did scream at my husband, as he rushed out the door to cover the election, “See all those people in the Trump crowd? They know what it means to wake up day after day and go to a job that’s so far beneath them that all they can do when they come home is drown their sorrows in alcohol and pain killers. They know what it means to have some smarmy, entitled kid, 20 years their junior, tell them that they can or can’t take a coffee break or stay home with their sick kid. And so do I.”

We Israelis are more than a decade ahead of you Americans in using the disenfranchised to put a well-born, entitled guy with a well-honed brand into our highest office. Let me tell you that the fallout from this can end very badly or go on and on. Let me tell you that you better take a second look at the “rubes” who “don’t know what’s good for them” and you better learn to speak their language. You better know that an accident of birth, good luck, and a series of coincidences put them where they are and you where you are. Otherwise, another guy just like him or worse will take his place in four or eight years’ time.

You better work like mad to show respect, understand, empathize, and share opportunity with the “rubes.” That means finding a way for their kids to go to the same schools and colleges that yours attend. Yeah, you and your kids have to share.

They and I may stumble over words, talk while chewing our food, and hold our wine glasses wrong at your parties, but we have learned to speak your language to some extent. I, for one, have been translating from “rube” into “entitled” all of my adult life. With your college educations and native English, I’m sure you can translate the other way and say something better than “Feh!”

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am the author of Hershele and the Chicken Skates, was the English Web Content Manager for the Israel Museum and have translated from Hebrew to English for Haaretz and the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. I'm a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.
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