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Romanticizing Israel

There’s a widespread mentality of idealistic olim and naive tourists who come to Israel and are just awestruck by every minor thing. They are amazed at the diversity and ingenuity of Israelis. They walk around with a palpable pride that Israel invented USB memory sticks and cutting edge irrigation systems. They are astonished when they see a Sudanese refugee helping an old Jewish woman on the bus. They marvel at the soldiers smiling and making small talk with them at the Kotel.

What they fail to realize is that bottom line, Israel is a country that is home to nine million citizens, and many of them, practically speaking, don’t hold any passport other than an Israeli one. They aren’t dual citizens with other nations and will mostly need to apply for a visa to visit the US. When they sing אין לי ארץ אחרת, they mean it quite literally. 

Hebrew isn’t a miraculously ancient revived language to native Israelis, it’s the language they grew up speaking as their mother tongue and their primary means of communicating. Most of them can also speak basic English and will be more than happy to help out any American tourist, but it goes without saying that the language which they are most proficient and comfortable with is Hebrew.

When Israelis think of Sinai they aren’t thinking of the land mass three times the size of Israel which was given back in exchange for peace with Egypt. They’re thinking of a trip with friends where they can technically travel to another country without getting on a plane or a cruise ship. They’re mostly happy that Israel gave it back because now it’s still a desert oasis with Bedouins who will offer them an authentic experience for a laughably cheap price. They’re thankful it hasn’t been converted to a resort city too expensive for them to travel to; in other words that it hasn’t turned into Eilat.

If you ask an Israeli child whether they are Ashkenaz or Sephardic, unless the child is Chareidi, they most probably won’t know. They’ll just tell you that they are Israeli. Ethiopians and Phillipinos are their classmates; they play together and do school projects together. They’re not amazed at how different their friend looks from them.

Whether Israelis adhere to left wing, right wing, or centrist politics, they still live, work, and are friendly with each other. No matter the rhetoric they espouse they all still interact on an everyday basis with Arabs for a myriad of practical reasons. The most staunchly right wing Israeli won’t object to a multi-faith ceremony, even while he might claim that it’s a futile endeavor in the long run. He might not believe a collective peace is possible, but that won’t stop him from being gracious with his Arab cab driver.

Of the two most radical right wingers I know, one has gone to Ramallah, even to the grave of Yasser Arafat, and has an undoctored photo of himself proudly wearing a blue kippah at the grave site. The other one has participated in an authentic Eid al Fitr celebration with devout Muslims.

In day-to-day living, when there isn’t a war with rockets being launched by Hamas, Israelis for the most part aren’t discussing which groups of people are indigenous to the land of Israel. They’re discussing a merger and acquisition and are hopeful of making the next big exit in high tech. 

I remember a madricha of birthright telling her group not to buy green military style t-shirts. She explained that even though Israelis are proud of the IDF it’s still an unfortunate necessity for the country. She made them aware that they shouldn’t glorify the fact that almost every eighteen year old is conscripted into the army and that it’s a less than ideal expected rite of passage. 

While Israel is very unique in so many regards, in many ways it’s just another country like so many other countries. Romanticizing Israel is a disservice to its citizens who were born and raised there and don’t have any other choice of where to live. It’s admirable to be all proud and nationalistic, but when it’s overdone it moves past the realm of distasteful and into the realm of almost nauseating.

About the Author
Chava Berman Kaplan grew up in Los Angeles, CA in an orthodox community in the La Brea Fairfax neighborhood. She moved to Israel in her early twenties, first residing in Jerusalem, then Bet Shemesh, and now in Holon. She has two children, ages twelve and ten, who study in a mamlachti school in Holon. She works as an English teacher and has always enjoyed writing as a hobby.
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