Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hugging Through Glass

The Jewish Week, December 7, 2001

When the Israeli novelist David Grossman first visited America, he commented, “Americans are very polite, but trying to relate to them is like kissing through glass.” Now, following a year of unprecedented suffering in Israel and a day of unimaginable horror here, the relationship between Israelis and American Jews has changed in remarkable ways. The Sabra’s legendary coarse exterior has peeled away, revealing vulnerability rarely seen before by outsiders, and the hard crusty New Yorker has softened in kind.

I was in Israel a few weeks ago on a solidarity trip from my community and was dumbfounded by how grateful Israelis were to see me. Every time an Israeli began to thank our group so humbly and profusely I was tempted to shout out, “Wait a minute! There’s something wrong with this picture! You’re supposed to be chastising us for not living here and we’re supposed to be complaining about your rudeness. Have I landed in Tel Aviv or Mister Rodgers neighborhood?”

An epidemic of niceness has broken out. Have you ever been on a tour where no one in the group complained about anything? That’s what happened, despite the usual assortment of glitches. It’s amazing how even an empty hotel couldn’t provide enough towels in some of the rooms; but even more incredible that it didn’t matter. Our purpose in going to Israel was not to be comfortable. It was, in fact, just the opposite: we were there to feel their pain, and for them to feel ours.

Remember the Yehuda Amichai poem, “Tourists,” where the author chastises camera-toting visitors for using him as a target marker for a Roman ruin? The poem concludes: “I said to
myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruits and vegetables for his family.””

Well, redemption may be at hand. There are precious few tourists on the streets of Jerusalem right now, but those who are there are sitting with the vegetable shopper in Gilo and virtually ignoring that Roman arch. All the old grudges have been set aside; the condescension has melted away. I’ve never felt more enriched by a visit to Israel, yet I used up barely a single roll of film. There was far less posing and a lot more hugging.

Everything has changed and we haven’t gained our bearings yet. Because of that, Israelis and Americans are still talking past each other, however genteelly. Israelis are resigned to the near disappearance of tourism, but they are bitter that a number of American students, including those from various rabbinical programs, have chosen to forego their overseas studies in Israel.
What they don’t understand is that, for Americans, the issue is no longer merely whether it is safe to visit Israel, but whether it is fair to leave one’s own family for a semester when the situation here is also perilous. I felt that same tug in leaving my family behind in the throes of the anthrax scare, even though I was in Israel for less than a week. They don’t understand that Americans are nesting right now; we’re not even going to Disney world for a week, much less to Mount Scopus for a year.

Most Israelis I spoke to also doubt America’s resolve to carry out the war on terror to its rightful conclusion, indicating, again, that they have no idea just how deep our wound runs. On the one hand, they’ve adjusted to living under constant pressure and vigilance and have become numbed to atrocity, and on the other hand, they’ve never experienced so terrible a blow to the very symbols of their society’s existence. How otherwise could they doubt our resolve, knowing that millions of Americans gaze tearfully at downtown Manhattan each day while crossing bridges or flying overhead? This national nightmare is far from fading away.

And how could they begin to imagine our shock, when the most recent comparable “ground zero” experience over there took place some 2,000 years ago, when the Second Temple was destroyed? Masada has not fallen again, but the World Trade Center has.

They can’t possibly understand, and it shows. Only days after the 9/11 attacks, Israeli TV insensitively showed the film “Independence Day,” and in early November a screening of “Deep Impact” followed that up. Both films feature fictitious decimations of New York and Washington. That’s like showing reruns of “Hogans Heroes” on Yom HaShoah – in 1945. On many El Al flights, just before landing a photo of the destination is projected onto the TV monitors. Let’s just say that as my plane approached JFK, they flashed an “old” photo of the New York skyline. I pulled over a stewardess and commented on how insensitive this was, especially toward Americans returning to their still-grieving city. In fact, it hardly mattered, because there were so few Americans on this nearly full flight.

They don’t understand us and we don’t even come close to understanding them. Our kids still go to malls and movies with little concern. We have little doubt that the bus will make it home from school. New York is looking to recover tourists, but in Israel many great hotels have closed down completely. Guides are moonlighting as couriers. This might be the greatest economic crisis in Israel’s history, but the monetary loss of the entire tourism industry is only secondary to the psychological impact of feeling utterly abandoned.

Now more than ever, American Jews need to visit Israel. With everyone feeling so vulnerable, a group hug is in order -- and the more we hug as fellow Jews, the more Israel and America will come together as nations. It used to be that we needed to visit Israel to show them that we care. Now we need to visit there all the more, to show our fellow Americans why.

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