Mind the gap

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted be a businessman. To me, it meant being somebody in a world full of nobodies. At the age of six I failed to recognize Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” as an allegory and thought it to be a social manifesto. Greed was good, happiness did come in shopping bags and Gordon Gekko was much cooler than Michael Jackson. For my seventh birthday my family bought me my first three piece suit and a James Bond attaché case knowing full well I had no interest in race cars.

Thus, when my parents informed me that we were relocating to the United States I was unable to curb my enthusiasm. I jumped up from my chair and to my mother’s surprise began dancing the Hora. Finally I had the opportunity to leave Israeli socialism behind and feel the warm embrace of America’s capitalism. Here was my chance to live in the birthplace of Ronald Reagan, Ewing oil and trickledown economics.

Five months later I found myself living in an affluent, white Jewish suburb and attending a private Jewish day school. America proved to be everything I had hoped for. The year was 1994 and while cable television had just arrived in Israel America’s cable providers offered a selection of 180 different channels. Supermarkets were packed with goods and candies that Israelis could buy once a year when SuperSal, an Israeli supermarket chain, celebrated “America week”. My new town was even home to one of the largest malls in the East coast- the King of Prussia mall. And his royal highness offered shoppers every brand-name in the world. Compared to Jerusalem’s Center One, this was a palace of joy; a dome of excitement and a temple of consumer delight.

It was morning in America, and I was there to enjoy it.

But after my initial excitement wore off, I began to see flaws in America. The streets of Philadelphia were filled with homeless people spending their nights on municipal benches. When I asked one of my school friends why so many people slept in the streets he said that some made a lot of money by begging, others were too lazy to work. Yet I still couldn’t understand why the world’s richest country would be content with its citizens freezing to death on cold winter nights.

Then I began watching the CBS Monday night movies which usually told the story of regular Americans who went bankrupt because they had cancer and could not afford treatments. When I asked my mother why Israelis didn’t share the same fate she told of me of universal healthcare, a concept I soon learned was un-American. During commercial breaks from NBC’s “Must See TV” I was yelled at by Alan L Rothenberg “The Injury Lawyer” who informed me that I too had someone to sue and a fortune to make. But above all there was the overwhelming violence. The channel 6 ten o’clock evening news would always begin with a murder or even two. By the time I had left Philadelphia, the term “drive by shooting” became as familiar as “be kind rewind”.

This was not the America I had seen in Reagan’s campaign ads nor was it the America I had so admired. Disillusioned by the American dream I was ready to go home.

Much has changed since the early 1990’s. Israel now has its own fair share of limousines and billionaires. Huge supermarkets fill our cities with never ending aisles of sodas and laundry detergents and Israeli shopping malls are home to the world’s most exclusive brands, brands which my mother refers to as “Gucci Shmucci”. Local supermodels like Bar Refaeli make headlines throughout the world and Israeli TV shows are formatted for American audiences.

Yet while the gap between Israel and the US has narrowed substantially, we have forgotten to mind the gap. Like the United States, the gaps between the rich and the poor in Israel have expanded over the past two decades as have the gaps in education and affordable healthcare. Like America, Israel has seen a steady increase in the number of families with two wage earners living under the poverty line. Israel is also a more violent place then it once was as social solidarity is “out” and survival of the fittest is “in”. The current popular “ism” is not socialism or Zionism but venture capitalism.

We have adopted much from America but have not done so selectively. Now is the time to stop and ask ourselves if America is the supermodel we wish to resemble and if we are willing to pay the price that comes with being America. I for one am not.

About the Author
Ilan Manor is finishing his mass media studies at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to the Jerusalem Post, +972 Magazine, the Jewish Daily Forward and On Second Thought magazine. His Hebrew-language blog has been featured several times in the Israeli press.