Traffic jam
Israelis stuck in a traffic jam. Photo by David Bachar
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Every single work day of my summer internship, I get a 22-minute crash course on the diversity of Israel.

For 22 minutes each day, I meet a new cab driver who ferries me to my job, and for 22 minutes each day, I get a snippet of a different take on the country – one that often turns into a 22-minute rant and an opening of a cross-cultural dialogue.

The lecture always begins with a bit of fatherly advice, with the cab driver taking matter into his own Israeli hands and advising me on the best way to get through my commute each day. The lecture is usually accompanied by a sampling of Israeli music and always, a political discussion on American Jews and their role in Israel.

A recurring constant, which emerges after what has usually developed into a never-ending list of critiques and complaints about Israel, is a declaration that “Israel is the best place I could live.”

What intrigues me more than this pride, this declaration of praise for a country by a person who resides there without great financial means or occupational prestige, is the prevalence of this declaration and how it truly appears to be the underlying stream that carries the Israeli people forward.

I close the door on the cab each day trying to put the pieces of national identity together, trying to understand how my own Israel parents left Israel 22 years ago for the United States when this is so clearly a place where I feel such a strong pull of return.

About once a week, I’ll get a driver who stays silent for the drive. This kind of driver is the most unnerving, an Israeli without something to say seems like an aberration. And yet, this space of silence is the most informative, because it is a space of subdued gray, masking a tumultuous base layer.

Israel may be one of the most complex places in the world, and for American Jews, coming to face with that reality can be alarming because it moves beyond a purely defensive role of the Jewish state.

Inherent in the concept of Diaspora is that each Jew living in the Diaspora has to come to terms with his or her own relationship and responsibility (or perhaps self-declared lack thereof) to Israel as a nation.

For my American group, Israel pushes us out from the careful division of black versus white and places us unto an active mass of gray discussion, as we work in the booming Israeli business and high-tech sectors and meet its booming power players.

With each version of Israel we encounter, with each leading business figure we meet or new colleague we introduce ourselves to, we are forced to take a stance on our own identity as American Jews, and to return to our homes, inject complexity into flat American political discussions on the flaws and challenges of Israeli society.

When I leave Israel, I hope my future discussions will be at least a fraction as engaged and passionate as those of the cab drivers I meet every day on my commute to work.