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Aryeh Schonbrun

Welcome Home? Rediscovering America as an Israeli

I left the U.S. in early 2017. Other than a brief visit the following year, I had not set foot on American soil until a little over two months ago, at the beginning of September. My return was unremarkable, at least until war broke out in Israel. I fled the political instability that had engulfed Israeli society over the past few years, and I became overcome with a certain dread concerning Israel’s precarious security situation (I was not overly surprised when the war eventually did break out). I could write another post about my experiences in Israel, or my political activities in the West, however, I want to devote my time to expounding on my experiences as an expat, returning home amidst all the chaos.

I fled the United States in early 2017. I wanted to leave the overbearing, mechanistic artificiality that I associated with my upbringing. I despised the cancerous commercialism that, in my eyes, epitomized the banality of American values: greed, profit and apathy. Growing up, I grew to despise the deceitful politeness of the hordes, and the vacuous ignorance of the masses. I wanted to seek out a new identity, a new life, far away from the stresses and corruption of American paganism.

Of course, Israel could not provide such a respite from the ravages of American vices. In fact, parts of Israeli society even doubled down on problematic elements of American culture, and, in the name of democracy and progress, adopted America’s nihilistic ethos as their own. At times, I found Israel’s ridiculous imitation of American society amusing, yet naïve, fickle and sometimes cruel and irresponsible. I began to sense that Israelis, however much they wished to emulate the West, could not do so successfully, that something critical was missing in their basic perception of modernity, in their identity. The inauthenticity of Israeli “Western” society stirred up something in my subconscious, and I began to reassess my harsh judgement of America.

Upon my return to the U.S., I feared the initial culture shock. I also feared the embarrassment of having failed in my attempt to extricate myself from the craziness that thought I had left behind. Surprisingly, during my initial period of reintegration, I began to explore aspects of American society that I had not experienced in my life as a sheltered, Modern-Orthodox Jew. I made new friends, pursued my political activities, and learned about America from a new perspective, that of an Israeli.

Not that I gave up on my Jewish identity, I just didn’t feel the need to self-identify as Jewish in the context of my Americanness. I’d become Israeli in both mentality and culture, and, while I continued to participate in Jewish ritual, I did not feel as if I needed to limit myself, and my political consciousness, to being Jewish. I ascribed my initial feelings of alienation to my inherent foreignness, and I saw myself simply as a sojourner in a strange land.

Then, as time went on and I became more sure of myself, as I recuperated the natural cadence of my native tongue, I started to reassert myself as American. I have not reclaimed the patriotism that I once felt for my country as a child, but I’ve developed a greater appreciation for life here, and a higher tolerance for the eccentricities of this society. The overwhelming chaos that once caused me great anxiety has subsided, though I have not returned to the boyhood excitement I once had for the seemingly endless possibilities the Western world had to offer. I can now see America for what it is, and judge accordingly.

America is a machine, an elegant organization of humanity that projects strength and flexibility through cold, emotionless efficiency. What America lacks in human spirit, she makes up for in control, of the elements, and of humanity itself. The ease of life here, amidst the dynamism of millions of workers and their overseers, almost justifies the sacrifice of individual autonomy, of personal liberty, that one must make when interacting with such a society. The overbearing weight of Western civilization, of human progress, falls on the shoulders of the masses, and is borne with a fascinating sense of pride. Americans believe in their way of life as objective reality; their empirical senses have grown so accustomed to the society they inhabit. This blind disregard of other forms of culture, and of other means of government, strikes me, a fellow American, both as charming and dangerous, and I cannot but envy those who sense no moral dilemma in their lives, who live their lives by opportune rote (and pity those who fail to make sense of their own realities and sink into personal despair). This is not a country of ideologues. It is, essentially, the polar opposite of Israel’s Zionism-dominated society.

Americans’ expectations from personal relationships are at once nominal and superficial, and cordial. A universal sense of identity pervades society, maintained by physical intimidation (law enforcement), government agency and a collective regard for the health of society, with the recognition of government’s inability to ensure the benefit of all individuals. Self-sacrifice, the willingness to forego individual prowess for the sake of majority rule, forms an unmistakable tenet of the American belief in personal responsibility and self-consciousness. To dream, to feel, to sense, must remain an individual experience, lest one find himself deemed an unrepentant, condescending, narcissist. To be cancelled is to die.

Discounting the superficiality, Americans are generally good, genuine people, full of authentic regard for themselves and others, indeed a resounding proof of the resilience of the human condition even in the face of such an onslaught of robotic mediocrity. I once feared that the spark of humanity had finally been extinguished, but, somehow, I find that Americans still strive, in their own way, to explore the bounds of the limited consciousness afforded them by their extenuating circumstances, and continue to ask the questions that provoke them to step away from their artificial cocoons, and demand their humanity.

I don’t blame the government. The government is but a tool, a ploy exercised by those in power, and by the greater, global forces that administer the human race. I also can’t say if Americans are worse or better off than their fellow humans in the rest of the world. What Americans gain in comfort, they forego in fitness, what they win in wealth, they lose in liberty. I, of course, have not forgotten the global implications of American extravagance. I could not ignore the deleterious effects that American jingoism has wrought upon the world (and on Israel), but I’ve come to appreciate the quirks of American society, the insanity and immorality, as unique cultural traits that all human cultures share. All societies have their vices, all of them share their elements of good and evil, and America, though she may profess her innocence, has dabbled much in both. From the beaches of Normandy to the sands of Iraq, from the uprooting of the natives to the settlement of space, America has done much in the span of her relatively short history. She may not be the best, or the most moral, but she is home.

I’ve developed some optimism in my outlook on American society over the next few decades. I sincerely believe that America will change for the better, partly owing to her declining status as world power and due to the increasingly precarious global situation in which we all find ourselves. I am convinced that Americans will find a way to reintegrate themselves into the world consciousness, and will stop seeing themselves as the sole authoritative voice in the discussion surrounding modernity, morality and progress. I believe that, with the help of our European allies, America will come to recognize its place in the emerging world order, eventually leading to a peaceful resolution of the current tensions with China and to the eventual dismantling of America’s military occupation in Europe (through NATO-E.U.). I must believe in the viability of my fatherland’s humanity. As much as I have tried over the years to neglect and deny my identity, I remain a proud American.

About the Author
Originally from Westchester, NY, Aryeh made Aliyah 6 years ago.