Although I grew up in a very Jewish household, I was only connected to Israel's news, politics and fate through the work my father did as a Jewish newspaper journalist, associated with the AJPA, the Jewish Press and in the eighties, as the editor of the New York Jewish Week.
I knew the names, the events and the struggle, but it wasn't something I internalized or even believed I ever would. Israel was six thousand miles away, and I was a poor kid in a dysfunctional family on New York's Lower East Side, something of a common combination. The issue of Israel's fate wasn't very high on my list of priorities, and certainly far below my own immediate need for satisfying my personal aspirations and indulgences.
Opportunity knocked, though. It was 1988; I was 19 and headed to Israel for the first time. This wasn't a high minded trip to seek out Zion and the Holyland, but a decidedly personal trek, to be with the woman I would marry a year and a half later. My girlfriend's father had developed into an uncompromisingly hawkish Religious Zionist without really understanding what it truly meant to be a living, fighting and dying Israeli. Upon her graduation from high school he promptly dispatched his daughter to an Israeli yeshiva, essentially for ideological guidance, but actually, he did have another crucial reason: to keep his daughter away from me.
While he happily failed in the pursuit of the latter, it isn't as if he achieved wild success in the former. She cares for Israel, true, but she never developed that deeper sense of longing for the country that I would.
It had been four months since we had seen each other last, we talked as often as we could, usually beginning with her making a phony collect call, my rejecting it and calling back from my home phone. Unbeknownst to her, and largely due to fatherly connections, I got on an El Al flight, and I landed the day after Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The ecstatic expression on her face made my efforts worth it, yet it was soon to be chilled when we walked that night through Jerusalem and we saw the remnants of Syracuse University students who were to be on that ill fated flight. These student who were fortunate enough to choose to divert to Israel for a few days after their school trip to London, were broken and crying in the middle of Ben Yehuda Street at Zion Square.
The initial hints of connections to Abu Nidal, Islamic Jihad, Abdel Basset Ali and Muammar al-Gaddafi made it so clear that Israel was to be blamed as the catalyst for this mass murder. Suddenly, being a Jew and being a Zionist hit me hard – it wasn’t just a moniker, it was a cause worth fighting for and one that we would fight for a long time to come, both in perception and in actuality.
What happened in Israel for me was miraculous. For one, I took my love out of the yeshiva; she stayed with me at my stepmother’s flat at 1 Nissim Bachar in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot section, right across from the Pargod Jazz Club. We traveled the country, prayed at the Western Wall, climbed Masada, waded in the Dead Sea, saw ancient ruins, rusted armaments of previous wars, and we hung out at clubs and bars – not the Americanized ones, but real Sabra hangouts. She and I, along with friends, sat in hazy pubs, smoked Time cigarettes, drank Bira Maccabee, and debated Israel politics as if we knew something others did not, and spoke with the authority of decades of experience – which, of course, we had none. The true miracle here was that I fell in love with Israel; its breathtaking sunsets, its deep warmth, its glorious history and innumerable contributions to humankind, its troublesome narrative and its bizarre internal religious identity crisis and, mostly, its people. My people!
I long for Israel, shed tears while I sing or hear Hatikvah, and walked down my wedding aisle to Naomi Shemer’s evocative Al Kol Eleh – On all These Things. I have been there as many times as I can get there, and through my career and my personal activities have always been close to her, have fought for her and will defend her forever. A few years ago, on my children’s first trip to Israel, my son's greatest joy was sitting alone with me at a small outdoor grill off Rechov Azza and Rav Berlin in Jerusalem, eating schnitzel in pita stuffed with pickles and chummos. He didn’t need to do anything more but sit in the Israel air taking in the city sun, absorbing the similar tones of Jerusalem stone adorning every building and watching the cars and the people pass by. I felt proud and content for the moment.
For the moment only – because I know there is so much to do. If it were so easy to create new Zionists and defenders of Israel through outdoor grills and Mediterranean air, I suspect Israel’s future would seem immutable, rendering the politics of who American Zionists choose as the 44th President inane as could be. Yet, my son’s attachment comes from what he sees in my heart and eyes as much as from the school he attends. His being there only raised it to the surface. For so many, attachment is lacking and that is where the work needs to begin.
What Israel needs is a new approach to an old problem. Keeping it important—making it central—to the lives and hearts of people around the world, living in an evermore secularized and assimilated society. Many young Israelis themselves, tired of living in a perpetual state of war and with internal religious struggles, no longer feel the Zionism their grandparents believed in as they fought for the country’s right to be born, or even the Zionism their parents believed in as they fought for the country’s ability to survive. For the Twentysomethings, Entebbe is a story one reads about in a history book and the reunification of Jerusalem happened before their parents were born.
Instead, daunting questions stemming from as far back as Sabra and Shatila haunt Israelis. Continued with failed terrorist assassination attempts, bad press in Jenin more recently, as well as Gaza and Amona, the Second Lebanon War fiasco, and then the countless, pointless and absolutely heartbreaking collection of corruption stories on every level of Israel’s government and of every variety - from money to sex. Israel was supposed to be the savior of the Jewish people and the return to Zion that God promised in the Bible. Yet, debates linger among Jews themselves regarding whether Israel today is that redemption from Diaspora. How to fix it remains at issue, and while the hard answers can be debated for centuries beyond my lifetime, the simple solution for now is better public relations.
What began for me as a just a fun trip sparked a fire in me that has burned ever since. Back then I would argue with my father in law the rights and wrongs - often from the wounded dove's point of view. Time, work, knowledge and experience have brought me closer to the point of view he had always taken on faith. Yet, I also know that making the case for Israel is never simple.
Today, we’re all about cell phones and fancy cars, trendy clothes and American Idol, Facebook and JDate. What Israel needs now is less talk about politics, less news about internal and external troubles and more about what Israel offers our world. Just about all that we are, from Asia to the Americas, developed, underdeveloped and undeveloped, stems from some iconic trend, personality or technology; and Israel, as small as it may seem, has advanced enough of all to celebrate. Much of what we know and have today is irrefutably connected to Israel.
Advances in technology, like harnessing the sun and now water to replace oil as an energy resource; Internet applications within Microsoft to Google stem from Israel’s Silicon Wadi; medicine, biomedicine and stem cell advances far beyond most other countries; and culture, music and art as well as production of some of today’s mainstream celebrities like the Apple songstress Yael Naïm, American Idol Elliot Yamin, Natalie Portman, and the infamous Gene Simmons, are all what Israel can and should be known for.
That is the Israel that our children will look to, and that is the Israel that will survive the daily news and routine thrashing from her mendacious opponents who choose to ignore facts for rhetorical one-upmanship. If Israel can learn to deal with its own internal strife and make an organized effort to promote what’s good and relevant to today’s generation, then my fond memories of debating in Israel’s pubs and watching the sunrise over Masada as I escaped New York to chase a dream can be succeeded by my own child’s memory of eating schnitzel and chummos at a sidewalk café while infusing his longing for Israel into his children one day.