Keeping Israel in Perspective

Feb 22

Back in the seventies, I spent a summer living and working in New York City.  I remember thinking that NYC was “like any big city, but much more so.”  It had just about anything that you could want...and much that you wouldn’t.   Amazing cultural and historical sites.  The best food in the best variety “anywhere.”   Unmatched business and entertainment opportunities.  Great public transportation.   And on and on.  But also crime, dirt, noise, poverty, high prices, crowds, awful climate (for a Southern Californian).  And on and on. 

Perhaps we should look at Israel a little like this: a place of extremes and of just about everything in-between.  Its many wonderful characteristics and places can be almost intoxicating.  For a non-Israeli Jew to be in a Jewish country – the very concept is difficult or impossible to truly grasp from afar -- is a unique existential experience.  Hebrew everywhere?  Jewish holidays celebrated by the general public?  Synagogues (rather than churches) everywhere?  Mezuzot on public buildings?  This has to be felt to be understood.  I refer to it as “breathing Jewish air.” And that’s just being there. 

Then there’s the diverse natural beauty – snow-capped mountains, rugged valleys, rolling hills, fields of wildflowers, desert, the Mediterranean, all in a postage-stamp sized area.  The astonishing archeological sites, the international flavor and spirituality of Jerusalem, the vibrant society, the incomparable richness of unrestrained Jewish culture and life in all its diversity.  The very miracle of the ancient Jewish state reclaimed and strong after 2,000 years.  And on and on.  

But then there are the many negatives.  Constant vituperative politics, government corruption, bureaucracy, strikes, organized crime, discrimination, the need for “protexia” (influential friends), reckless drivers, the high cost of food and housing, low wages, and endless conflicts between Jews and Arabs, Jews and Jews.  And this doesn’t even include the inherent tension of having children in the army and living under the never-ending threat of invasion or missile attack.   

My point is this:  When reading about Israel in the media, there is a great danger of forming a narrow and skewed perspective, especially because most “news” of all kinds is both superficial and negative.  (And, in Israel’s case, news reporters and editors are too often biased).   It’s important to receive every news report about Israel as only one tiny new tile in a vast mosaic.  One tiny example: When you hear of “the Golan Heights” do you think only of a tank battleground and a disputed political territory?  It is that, but it is also, as I discovered during a recent trip, a tempting retirement area: gorgeous vineyards reminiscent of Napa Valley, the four seasons (including snow), lower prices and a slower pace of life, yet still within reach of San Francisco-like Haifa and the coast.    

Based on my seven trips and six months spent in Israel over the past five years, Israel is a marvelous, incomparable place at the same time that it has many severe problems.  It can be a challenge to remember that Israel is a tremendously varied and complex place.  It is still a very young country, albeit with ancient roots everywhere on display.  Protracted social and many other serious problems?  Yes.  But much, much more than that.  And, Israel has coped with many very serious problems (or challenges) from repeated wars to internal conflicts to absorbing of waves of millions of poor and unskilled immigrants.   We must keep a broad perspective on its problems, and encourage others to do so as well.

Israel’s most important and amazing characteristics are that it exists and that it is ours.     

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb