Israeli Politics in America Get Lost in Translation

In New York, American Jews, unable to resist temptation, try to set me straight on Israeli politics, though I as an outsider tread cautiously on their home turf of U.S. politics.

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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vered kellner
Vered Kellner

On the front page of last Saturday’s New York Times was a photograph of an American soldier in his wife’s arms. Their lips were joined in a kiss as their baby daughter looked on in wonder. This kind of photo should seem familiar to Israeli readers: another hero returns from the battlefield. But the caption seemed to come from another world completely. “Who’s that man, Mommy?” was how the editor chose to describe the girl’s feelings at that moment. Later in the piece, he explained that the soldier had returned home to Colorado after ten months on the front.

Ten months with no weekend leave? What’s wrong with this picture?

I got the first hint of an answer about two weeks after my family and I landed in New York in the middle of this August, during the tumultuous days between one party political convention and another. The American presidential election campaign was in full swing, and I became addicted to countless hours of pathos-filled speeches. With that in the background, I quickly found my way to Barack Obama’s Facebook page and gave it a “like.” That was how an invitation to a lottery, where the prize was dinner with Michelle and Barack, appeared in my Facebook feed one day. To me, it seemed like an excellent idea, particularly with my husband’s birthday just around the corner. That could be a great surprise, I thought.

A quick double-click and I was in. I typed in my private information as I wondered whether it was worthwhile to mention anything about kosher food or my gluten-free diet, just to be on the safe side. But then, at the bottom of the page, there was a note in parentheses from the campaign staff reminding everyone that the sole condition for participation was American citizenship. Oops – haven’t got that. I left the page disappointed, reminding myself that feeling at home on the Upper West Side and a subscription to The New York Times weren’t really enough.

It was an important reminder. In this global environment, we all live under the delusion that borders are an archaic relic of an age when you needed a walking stick, a backpack and a small inherited fortune to get to know different worlds. Today, with one friend telling me about his daily routine in Berlin and another sending updates from Florida every ten minutes, it’s easy to feel as though the world were in the palm of our hands. That we have enough information to put together a well-informed opinion in every controversy. Even if it’s on another continent. Self-confidence, a trait that has always been attributed to Israelis, definitely doesn’t help to hold back this feeling of belonging, imaginary though such belonging may be.

For example, if I’d stayed in Israel, I’d content myself with watching the foreign news segment of Channel 10’s news broadcast, plus a Jon Stewart skit or two that a friend put up on Facebook, so that I could firmly assert that the Tea Party is nothing but a bunch of lunatics cut off from reality. If I wanted to seem like I was really in the know, I could always quote some translated essay by Maureen Dowd. Nobody would argue with me after that. But here’s the problem: I know how these opinions sound to somebody for whom American politics are their home ground. I know that because I saw what happens on the other side of the barricade when American Jews, unable to resist temptation, try to set me straight on Israeli politics.

This is a routine dialog where Jews who are liberal on all the current issues in America try to convince me how much Israel wants peace and that it’s gotten to where it is only because there’s no one to talk to on the other side. He supports Obama’s health-care reform. She thinks that the people in charge of Wall Street are a bunch of money-grabbers whose greed knows no bounds. But when the elections approach, they will consider voting for the Republican candidate “because of Israel.”

This out-of-tune piano plays on every scale of the political spectrum. It also sounds jarring when J Street breaks out of internal American discourse and tries to hold a dialog with Israelis and Palestinians. More than a year ago, Jeremy Ben-Ami and his colleagues on J Street’s board came to Israel for a series of meetings and tours, and I accompanied them for two days as a journalist. Their efforts to inject some momentum into the dormant negotiations were really touching, but the general feeling was that they were talking in a foreign language. They completely missed that over the past few years, the Israeli mood has been one of despair, of giving up. They were still practicing their accents from the optimistic Oslo days while the locals, Israelis and Palestinians alike, responded to their good intentions in fluent Skeptic.

The mini-war in Gaza also lost a lot in translation – from the frustration of many citizens over Netanyahu’s latest spin for the election campaign, to the deep despair that comes from feeling like we live in a centrifuge of events spinning out of control, to the news of the rocket alert in Tel Aviv, which left us badly shaken. That’s my home. My community. The anchor of my sanity. It’s where my children took painting classes until three months ago. Nobody wants to hear the smooth-tongued, patronizing opinion of an outsider, for whom Tel Aviv or New York are nothing but tourist destinations.

So to keep from falling into the trap of rudely translating my opinions from the old country, I tried to do my homework. I watched the party conventions with Google open in my browser so I could find out who Sandra Fluke was (answer: a feminist who worked to get contraceptives included in the health-insurance law), and why Rush Limbaugh was so annoyed with her (answer: for the same reason). When I met physicians, I cautiously asked whether they could tell me what was included in Obama’s health-insurance law, and what the difference was between Medicare and Medicaid. Now that the elections are over, I’ve been focusing my efforts on NPR’s economics program to learn what on earth people are talking about when they mention the “fiscal cliff,” only to find that not even the descendants of the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower have any idea.

But even after all that, I realized that as an outsider, I was better off listening than talking. That’s no simple matter for a person who has politics in her blood. In Israel, I had three solid opinions a day, and I knew who would respond and how when I shared them. In New York, I have to feel my way carefully. It turns out that no banker on Wall Street wants to hear that Obama saved his job and scooped him off the trash heap. And an American soldier, even when he’s smelling of the sweat of the battlefront and embracing his wife, is not my neighbors’ son who’s just come back from a two-week stint at the Qalandiya checkpoint. I learn pretty quickly that intuition is a matter of geography.

On election day, I got a ride to a parent-teacher meeting with two other mothers. From the back seat, I asked with some hesitation whether in America, it was all right to ask people whom you’d met ten minutes ago whom they’d voted for. “No,” said one. “I voted for Obama,” said the other. “And I cancelled out your vote,” the first one said, “because of Israel.”

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York.

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