'If a million American Jews moved to Israel, there'd be peace'
If a million North Americans had come to live in Israel 20 years ago, or even five, this would be a better country.
There are things we never write about here. Sometimes it's because doing so may betray a certain prejudice or bear the dangers and fictions of generalization. It may be hurtful. The subject may be painful to the writer, or prick a certain shame.
Sometimes it's because the topic seems unserious, petty, beneath the dignity and gravity of questions of Middle East import.
In the case of the following paragraph, it's a little of all of them. It's a quotation from a Moscow-born soldier I once served with in the army.
"If a million American Jews had moved to Israel," he said, "there would be peace."
A friend of his, also Russian-Israeli, was quick to respond, his tone midway between derision and a certain sense of triumph. "No danger of that happening."
The subject changed before I could ask the second man which he thought was impossible - a million immigrants from North America, or peace. It was fairly clear, however, that he meant both.
Without really giving it serious thought, I could sense that it was one of those observations that, once repeated, manages to offend a large number of people at once. I let it rest.
That conversation came to mind this week for two reasons. One was what my colleague Carlo Strenger called his counterfactual dream: that graft allegations had not unseated Ehud Olmert as prime minister, and by last year he would have forged a workable peace with the Palestinians.
The other was a speech I heard over the weekend, when tens of thousands demonstrated against, among other related issues, the practice of granting the ultra-Orthodox blanket exemptions from national service of any kind.
Toward the distant end of the rally held in the jungle heat of Tel Aviv, an American who moved to Israel in 2004, rose to speak. It was Rabbi Dov Lipman of Beit Shemesh, himself ultra-Orthodox. For some time, Lipman has been waging a
battle of rare courage against harassment and violence by ultra-Orthodox extremists in the town.
It's not every day that I feel proud to be an American immigrant to Israel, but this was one of them. The speech was stirring, unifying, and, shunning the cavernous ruts of Israeli political argument, extraordinarily fresh.
Drawing on traditional sources and rabbinic wisdom to show how church-state political deal-making can warp the spirit of Judaism and cause a society to unravel, Rabbi Lipman was able to bring people from opposite sides together in the best sense. It was a true example of a mitzvah which American Jews are at times accused of over-emphasizing: tikkun olam, repairing the world.
I do not for a moment believe that a million American Jews will move to Israel. I believe that they will not. But if I were capable of putting aside my fears of being exposed as essentially uncool and insufficiently right-on, if I were to write about what we do not write about, if I would tell what I see as the truth about my Eidah, my congregation of Israel, my ethnic sub-tribe of the Jewish people, this is what I would come out and say:
American Jews who live here make Israel a better place.
Not all of us. Not all the time. But a remarkable percentage of Israel's most invisible minority spends an inordinate amount of its energy, talent, and forbearance on the business of repairing the world, and in particular, this far corner of it.
If a million North Americans had come to live in Israel 20 years ago, or even five, this would be a different country. And not only because people might drive less aggressively or even make sure that their kids used seat belts.
If there were a million U.S. and Canadian Israelis, lawmakers would not be able to get away with overt racism against Africans. Shas lawmakers would not be able to get away with covert racism against American Reform Jews. Rabbinical Orthodoxy, ultra-Orthodoxy, and the settlement movement would lose their status of privileged aristocracy, unbound by the laws of Israel at large. Civil marriage, true recognition of and openness to non-0rthodox Judaism, true separation of religion and state – for the direct benefit of both – would become a reality.
Equal rights and opportunities for Arab citizens would not be a dashed hope. When Arab Americans or Israeli Arabs arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, they would be far less likely to be humiliated, detained without cause, and treated as terrorists unless proven otherwise.
If a million Americans had moved here, the foreign minister would not be Avigdor Lieberman, and Avigdor Lieberman might well be behind bars.
The concepts of human rights, democracy, and respect for minorities would be more than ammunition to be deflected and redirected at Israel's critics, as in Their Wrongs Make Us Right.
And there would be peace.
To be fair, not every American immigrant saw Rabbi Lipman's speech the same way. According to Noga Martin, a former editor at the Jerusalem Post, now writing at the Times of Israel site, "tonight’s rally in favor of universal draft presented us with a stunning example of another phenomenon – the Anglo Hebrew speaker with an accent that could peel paint off walls.
"Toward the end of the demonstration, an immigrant rabbi took the stage and gave an articulate, impassioned speech in perfectly acceptable Hebrew. Sadly, the power of his words was diminished by his dreadful North American accent."
I want to congratulate Noga Martin on becoming an Israeli. And for demonstrating how easily and on what basis, Israelis can wave away and ignore the few Americans who are here.
It's true. To Israeli ears, the American accent is not easily borne. It is reedy, not an ounce of the bullhorn gravitas in which Israeli ears enjoy being bathed. Where Americans intend openness and polite deference and an urge to give of themselves, Israelis hear the milquetoast and the nerd and the dupe. To Israeli ears, the American accent is as meek and inappropriately innocent as a permanent childhood. To Israeli ears, a voice like that has no business in a place like this.
If I were to write about the things we don't, if I could convince Israelis to listen to a sentence or two in my anemic little accent of a voice, I would put in a word for the North Americans who come here to try to make a life of it:
They lack for neither spine nor guts nor heart. You're lucky to have them.
One other thing, if I may. Personally, I have found that with every passing year here, my Hebrew has gotten a bit better, and my American accent in Hebrew, demonstrably worse. I have an idea what I sound like to Israelis in their mother tongue, and it is anything but attractive. At some point, I also realized whose problem this is, and it's not mine.