31 July 2009

My Heart is in the East

Beginning to think about my return to Brooklyn during this, my last Shabbat in Jerusalem for the summer, I am convinced more than ever of what America lacks that Israel has: a sense of purpose. Say what you will about the insanity of many of the political sectors; disagree vehemently (as you should) with policy, depending on your point of view; but one of the characteristics of life here that I mourn each time I leave is the remarkable sense of purpose of Israeli society. In its disunity, it is one. The "idea" of Israel, on some levels realized and on another so far from being truly realized, plays a great role in this.

Fridays are a good example to use. Like lots of people here, I buy a few papers on Fridays, and then put myself down somewhere--a cafe, my couch in the apartment--to read broadly about the week's events and immerse myself in the debate about the country's future. When I went for a walk to pick up a few things before Shabbat, cafes and restaurants were full with people reading, writing, talking--animated by the issues that animated them: the Netanyahu-Obama relationship; Rahm Emanuel's Jewish identity; the fate of African refugee children who came to Israel with their families seeking asylum; whether Israel should sell public land to private developers; Iran's nuclear ambitions; Fatah; Hamas; the debate over the ethical and moral dimensions in the Gaza War; Syria; Lebanon. The list is endless.

But it's not just that the list is endless--it's that the society on the whole is engaged in a way as a collectivethat we continue to lack in the United States.

We felt it briefly as a nation in the run up to the November election and basked in the glow of Obama's victory, feeling "as a people" that we had accomplished something great as a country--which we had.

But how soon as it all devolved into the insistent individuality and rampant, ugly partisanship over everything from health care to the environment to the bailout for banks and the auto companies and now, to the ridiculous public "concern" with Professor Gates and Officer Crowley. Reading my papers in Aroma on Emek Refaim yesterday, I looked up at a couple of "good-looking" people on Fox News, "analyzing" President Obama's first six months in office. America: six months presiding over a neglected nation and our attention-deficit starved populace needs an update!

I think Obama should give the nation his six-month update of us. What have we done as a nation to truly advance affordable health-care? What have we done to answer the call to service? What have we done to let our elected officials know that things need to be different? That business as usual in our massive nation can no longer continue? Congress has dug in its heels and asserting its opposition because--big surprise--those elected officials new and old are interested first and foremost in protecting their jobs. The news channels fan flames of meaningless controversy because--big surprise--it sells ads. And the people--the people!--shopped like crazy at Memorial Day sales and July 4th specials because it's what we're best at--turning collective narratives of sacrifice and independence into commerce, selfish pursuit, and profit.

The 12th century Spanish Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi once famously wrote, "My heart is in the East, and I am in the West. How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?" And I take this line with me each time I prepare to leave Israel. The power of its geography, the force of the collective narratives that guide its inhabitants; the intimacy and urgency of the issues draw its inhabitants into the project of its present and future; these are all among the most powerful forces one can encounter in life. It's certainly true for me, which is why I keep coming back.

This summer has me more convinced than ever that while it's true that our American president must continue to push hard for concessions on both sides of the political spectrum for peace, and that this, arguably, can be one of America's greatest contributions to Israel's future, the collective consciousness of a society deeply engaged in its future has much to teach us in America.

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