The 12 Unlikely Things I Love About Israel
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Jewish Journal 04.27.2023
The 12 Unlikely Things I Love About Israel
At home in Jerusalem—I still get goosebumps writing those magical words—the post-Independence Day high lingers, as do the extra BBQ pounds. True, the 75th anniversary celebrations were touchier than expected. The Knesset is reconvening, gearing up for who knows what. Still, most Israelis just spent two holy days putting politics aside, mourning and celebrating, just feeling lucky to be living this great adventure in Jewish-democratic statehood.
In honor of this complexity, here are twelve unlikely things I love about Israel, chamsin or cold-snap, whether governed by last year’s centrists, or this year’s right-wingers.
The empty nest is for the birds—and rare in Israel: Israel is small, community-minded, and traditional. That’s why, although our youngest is 21, our house remains more train station than empty nest. Most Shabbatot our table is full, the conversation lively, and the family dynamic ever-evolving, not just frozen in our kids’ teenaged selves.
Israel looks like a real country, but often feels like a shtetl. In 75 busy, often-stressful years, Israel established an army, an airport, a diplomatic corps. The country looks modern and mature. But the sense of us-ness, the delightful nosiness of neighbors, the social solidarity, makes its Anatevka not just Metropolis. My son serves with a lone soldier who wanted to buy a car. One soldier buddy’s grandfather leases cars. Gramps offered a good price, and had his son, the mechanic, inspect the used car. “You need legs in this country,” the grandfather proclaimed after visiting with this young Canadian idealist, then reduced the price to zero. Not every lone soldier gets a free car. But most immigrants get instant family.
On national holidays, we make the national ideological sale, again, instead of hunting for sales. Once we visited Washington on Memorial Day. My then 14-year-old son asked, “How come they aren’t sad?” Even this Yom HaZikaron, despite the protests, we stopped when the sirens sounded, and remembered that we are one. Memorial Day morning, I visited a small forgotten cemetery improvised during Jerusalem’s 1948 siege. A group of troubled teenagers spent the morning cleaning the long-neglected graves, then stood silently through a memorial service. A people that can stand in awe together can withstand awful politics and politicians together.
Cherry Tomato Zionism proves that extra effort can yield extra joy. In America, cherry tomatoes come wrapped in plastic boxes, their stems magically-removed. In Israel, where they were invented, you pop most mini-tomatoes off the vines. That minor effort engages you and reflects the joys of living in Israel. The additional effort often adds meaning. The poet Natan Alterman was right: Nothing valuable comes free on a silver platter.
Hativkah , hope, is our greatest renewable resource, not just our national anthem. How could this jumble of sand and rocks, of heat and drought, forged after Holocaust trauma and in War of Independence blood thrive as it has? It’s thanks to Zionism, which transformed the most hopeless people to the most hope-addicted people. We became the energizer bunny nation, in perpetual motion, expanding, creating, transforming, fueled by hatikvah , our never-ending supply of hope.
You can write off bad debts but not the Jewish people. People claim it’s never been worse. Really? Imagine the despair after the Holocaust, the fear of ‘48, the dread of May 1967, the distrust after 1973, and the horrors of the 2000s as terrorists blew-up buses and cafes. Imagine how hard it was to absorb millions of immigrants, create a democratic society out of quarrelsome chaos and an economy out of nothing but brainpower. How many times have people written off this oft-written-off country and been proven wrong because, as the pioneers taught: “Ein Breira,” we have no choice.
Altneuland: old-new land, never gets old, and always feels young . Israelis are swivel-headed: looking backward for identity and forward for growth. We count the past in millennia, the future in nano-seconds, and the present in eternity. Our archaeologists keep pulling out amazing artifacts from sacred ground, illuminating our history. And our scientists keep pulling out new miracles from thin air, improving the world.
Most Westerners have God-size holes in their hearts; Israelis don’t. The most sophisticated polls show that the most ancient truths still live in the Land of Israel. Even while inventing tomorrow today, Israelis remain rooted in yesterday, still believing in God, their nation, themselves. Israelis’ faith, traditionalism and community-mindedness help us rank fourth on the World Happiness Index. Without those anchors, many young moderns feel totally free, totally unmoored, totally lost.
Secular Israelis know there’s no Israel without Judaism and true Religious Zionists know there’s no Jewish state without secular power. Everyone loves exaggerating Israel’s secular-religious divide. But beyond the facts that most supposedly-secular Israelis believe in God, attend Passover seders, and mourn with a full seven-day shiva, they know that without the Jewish tie to this land, there is no Israel. Similarly, most Religious Zionists, while thanking God for miraculously creating the Jewish state, acknowledge that Zionism brilliantly spoke the secular world’s language, launching a Jewish sovereign state with an army, a government and international legitimacy.
The IDF is the Israel Defense Factory, not just the Israel Defense Forces. Two of my kids served in the army, and two still serve. Comparing my university experience with their years serving Israel, the Jewish people and the West, I knew they might be risking life and limb, which I didn’t. I knew they were mortgaging their freedom, and I hadn’t. What I didn’t realize was that when I was their age, I just worried about my grades and my pizza budget, while my kids were khaki cogs in a blue-and-white bureaucracy, a sophisticated corporation, IDF Inc. The cost was high: Their managers, often twenty-something-year-old officers, sometimes made dumb decisions. Still, they hit the identity-building jackpot. They emerged as “us” people and not just “I” people. They mastered skills. And they became more mature, more altruistic, more nationalistic, more proud, and more grounded than I was at their age.
Because we cry together, we can laugh together and at ourselves. Last year, my most left-wing, kibbutz-born, super-feminist student scoffed, “We can’t be politically correct! We’re Israelis! We have to laugh.” We laugh because we cry together, because we love life too much to take it so seriously as to drain it of fun. And despite our tensions, beyond hope, we have that other social thickener and bonding agent: trust.
Moving up to Israel is moving back to history—and the 1950s. Moving up to Israel felt like moving back to the best of 1950s and 1960s America. Much of Israel retains a small-town, Main Street vibe. Our neighbors know one another, look out for one another, and feel kinship with one another, even if we don’t always agree with one another. Yes, we keep dancing between the raindrops, aware of enemies plotting to destroy us. Nevertheless, we feel lucky as Jews to be living the Zionist dream, building the Jewish State. We understand, as humans, how meaningful our lives become by knowing who we are, where we have been, and what we want to become, together. No one, no matter how evil near us, no matter how disdainful far away from us, will ever rob us of our joy. Happy 75th!
A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org ) . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.
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Prof Gil Troy · 20 Derech Bet Lechem · Apt 2 · Jerusalem 9310925 · Israel