Text size

The first time I reached New York, in the early 1970s, it seemed to me that I had seen it before: The Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Rockefeller Center. It was all so familiar because like many Israelis, I had an aunt in New York, Clara. During the days of rationing in the 1950s, she sent us "Care" packages; I remember my pleasure with peanut butter. During the Sinai campaign they sent us immigration applications. Once she sent me a ViewMaster for my birthday. It was a wonderful machine that enabled viewing of three-dimensional photos of New York. And when I started to learn English, Aunt Clara made me a subscriber to the National Geographic.

The magazine with the golden frame around its cover each month not only brought me the jungles of Africa and the depths of the oceans, but it sent a message of stable conservativeness inspiring confidence in the foundations of the American system: the New York I found in the early 1970s was pretty violent and tattered, but in my eyes it symbolized that very same America I internalized when I read National Geographic in my youth: a land that can be counted on, trusted not only for its wealth and power, but also because it knew how to intensify the foundations of European culture, as well.

I remembered all that this week because last October, the National Geographic described in vivid detail the disaster that just took place in New Orleans. All that America's leaders had to do to prevent the disaster was to read National Geographic. That is a very troubling thought.

National Geographic has been coming out for the past few years in Hebrew, a clear sign of the Americanization of Israel. It is one of the foundational processes shaping the culture of this state, in effect counting as a key element among the elements of Israeli identity, and not only because of the status of the Jews there.

It began in the 1940s, when David Ben-Gurion understood that the Zionist dream would be fulfilled from Washington, not London, as Chaim Weizmann thought. In the early 1950s, the U.S. government made efforts and spent money to penetrate Israel with books, records and American movies. Israel still saw itself in those years as one of the socialist states, but even at the height of its sympathy for the "world of tomorrow" represented by the USSR, there was practically no anti-American tone in the Israeli discourse, such as that which flourished in Europe.

The more the economic, military and political dependency on America deepened, the more the Israeli dream became similar to the American dream. More and more Israelis took in American ideas and basic values, including the melting pot, and then multiculturalism, economic capitalism, basic constitutional laws of democracy, and more. The Israeli lifestyle adopted for itself more and more signs of America, as a refuge from the Mediterranean culture of its surroundings. The Israeli elite in every realm is now populated by people who spent at least a few years in America. They think in dollars, and instead of Shalom and L'hitraot, Hebrew's au revoir, they say Hi and Bye.

One can appreciate all the positive brought about by the Americanization without ignoring the negative, but there's no disputing Israel defining its own place somewhere on the edges of the American empire. That's why there's something so troubling about what now appear to be signs of the sinking of that empire.

The intelligence failures that preceded the attacks on the Twin Towers, the crash of the Columbia. How could it happen, in a country like America? The failed occupation of Iraq - to find out just how easy it is to conquer a country and how difficult to end its occupation, the U.S. didn't even need National Geographic. All they had to do was follow the news from the territories Israel occupied in the Six-Day War. And now, the catastrophe in New Orleans. It is impossible to avoid thinking that it reflects a very sick society.

I don't think about America in terms of it being a God that let me down. Israeli attitudes toward America are much more sober than those expressed by Marxist believers in the days of the Stalinist Soviet Union. There's no gloating, and no room for moral condemnation of the type heard in Europe. There's a sadness, disappointment, and even anxiety. What is happening to you, America? Because what happens to you seems to happen to us as well.