Throughout my life I have had to refer to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and to its words “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” It explains why, although I was born in Washington D.C., I did not acquire U.S. citizenship. My parents were Israeli diplomats and thus not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States.
When I was young, I cited the 14th Amendment to convince taunting Israeli friends that, technically, I was a sabra just like them. As I got older and Israeli values changed, I found myself citing the Amendment to argue that my failure to finagle a U.S. passport out of my birthplace didn’t make me the world’s greatest sucker. Both arguments, by the way, didn’t prove convincing.
Nonetheless, I have loved America with all my heart. I spent a third of my life in the U.S. in various capacities, and when I wasn’t living in America I was cheering it on from afar. I’ve had my differences with America, some of them fierce, but for me the U.S. has always been an integral part of my being. If Israel is my motherland, America is my step-fatherland. If Israel is my country, America is my world.
I spent most of my childhood in the U.S., first in D.C. and then, in the early sixties, in Los Angeles. It was there that my American persona was cemented. To this day I can vividly recall each and every minute of the weekend of November 22 1963, from the moment the principal of Yavneh Hebrew Academy came into the class to tell us that John F Kennedy had been killed and I was convinced the world was about to end, to the sobs that engulfed my family and friends as we watched little John John salute his father’s casket outside St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington D.C. It was an unbelievably stark contrast to my elation less than two months earlier, when I heard recent Presidential Freedom Prize winner Vin Scully describe the Sandy Koufax pitch that got New York Yankees outfielder Hector Lopez to ground out in the ninth inning of the fourth game of the 1963 World Series, to give the L.A. Dodgers a historic sweep, equal in my mind to the greatest miracles mankind has ever seen. I knew right there and then that my life would never get any better. A few months later, my father met Koufax at a UJA function, and got him to sign a personal autograph on the back of a business card. It is wrapped in hard plastic and is still one of my most cherished possessions.
Love of baseball is one of the telltale qualities that set me apart from most Israelis, who detest the game with a vengeance. When I lived in New York in the 1980s I used to take Israeli guests to Shea Stadium to see the Mets; I even tried it once on a blind date with an Israeli girl. As jinx would have it, in most cases the games I chose were scoreless extra inning affairs that bored even die-hard fans to death. Needless to say, I never heard from any of these people again.
An even more peculiar result of my half-breed upbringing is that I like American Jews. Not all of them, of course, but quite a lot. I feel at home with them. Most of the kids who studied with me at Yavneh weren’t hoity toity rich, as you’re likely to meet in private Jewish schools today, but came from middle class families in West Hollywood. Fifty years later, when I recently came to New York for another five years from which I have now returned, I still felt the same fundamental affinity for American Jews, which, unfortunately, is not shared by most of my fellow Israelis. I admire their success, I salute their values and I am in awe of their ongoing fight for social justice and, to use a term much maligned in recent years, tikkun olam.
What I have shared with many Israelis, though I suspect this may have waned in recent years, is appreciation and admiration for America, both as a concept and as a superpower. Israel may be my only country, but America was undoubtedly the greatest nation on earth. Not only because of its steadfast friendship and support for Israel but because of its stupendous success, pioneering ways and historic role, warts and all, on behalf of freedom and justice. America had fought off the Japanese and helped defeat the Nazis, America was the land of Neil Armstrong and Martin Luther King, America was the birthplace of female liberation and gay equality, and America was where the impossible happened and Barack Obama became president. You’ll excuse my psychological meanderings, but for someone brought up in pre-desegregation Washington D.C. by a doting African-American au pair named Ocie V Cook, of blessed memory, the election of a black president was nothing short of a deliverance. And now the unthinkable has happened and Donald Trump has been elected to replace him.
During my five years of working for Haaretz in New York, I made no secret of my dismay at what to my mind was the abominable hostility directed at Obama, in both Israel and America. Some of it, I am convinced, came from dark places that had nothing to do with criticism of his policies. I also became increasingly aware of the striking similarities, despite the enormous differences, in the rising influence of extreme viewpoints on the right wing in both countries, influenced, to one degree or another, by anti-Muslim sentiments. And while I was cognizant of Trump’s raw nativist appeal and of Clinton’s gross deficiencies as a candidate, I was nonetheless caught unprepared by Trump’s victory, and I know exactly why.
It wasn’t the erroneous polls or media complacency or New York elitism or a disconnect from white voters in Wisconsin. Contrary to the spate of retroactive mea culpas, all of these factors were well documented and repeatedly considered in the days leading up to the November 8 ballot. Rather, it was a basic belief, which turned out to be an illusion, that America, my America, would never prefer a foul-mouthed misogynist buffoon who thrived on people’s worst fears over a flawed candidate who was nonetheless measured and experienced like Hillary Clinton, who would be the first female president to boot. I suffered from cognitive dissonance, discounting warnings that this time around, my belief in America and in the wisdom of its ways may have been misplaced.
I wish I could confidently say that in four years or even eight years time the dialectics of history will correct whatever harm Trump will cause America or pretend to believe that he will surprise us all for the better. That is what many of us thought about Israel in recent years, but at this point in time, at least, we seem to have been proven wrong. A right-wing leadership whose main commitment is to its own preservation can systematically chip away at civil liberties, gradually pervert public opinion, continuously foment hate and preserve incitement, not as instruments of a campaign but as permanent features of government. Ask anyone in Israel today, after so many years of Netanyahu, if the center-left will ever return to power and you’ll be rewarded with shrugs or scorn.
People of my generation were conditioned to believe in happy endings: from defeat of Nazism to the fall of Communism, from the War of Independence to the Six Day War, from the march of equality to the liberation of nations throughout the world, humanity seemed to be advancing, in fits and starts, but always forward. This is not the way many of our parents felt, however, at least if they were Jews. They grew up in a world that succumbed to its satanic self, that saw Nazi Germany annihilate the Jewish people in Europe, including their own families. In their world, happy endings are but temporary recesses before the new tragedies that inevitably come in their wake.
So I worry about America, and I desperately hope to be proven wrong, just as I was wrong about Trump being elected in the first place. But I am not only concerned as every citizen of the free world must be, especially Israelis. I am as anxious as you would be when a close family member becomes seriously ill. No, even that’s not accurate enough: I am as frightened as one gets when the lab results come in and your doctor tells you the findings aren’t good and the prospects for recovery aren’t all that great either. When you go back home, your insides are gutted, your soul is crushed and you feel that your own body, which you’ve known and loved and relied on all your life, has betrayed you.
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