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Yes We Could, Yes We Did

December 1, 2008

This is a country prone to America-envy. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself romanticizing life in the States, constantly seeing reminders of the myriad ways in which this country doesn’t quite measure up to the standard set by its massive ally to the West. Whether it’s bank tellers who really do want to help you, or the ability to walk into restaurants in New York or Los Angeles without getting wanded, or even more substantial matters like America’s impressive democracy, the danger of jealousy lurks virtually everywhere.

Usually, I think I’m reasonably successful at avoiding that trap. (I’ll confess to taking some comfort from people like Governor Rod Blagojevich, who reminds me that we’re not the only country with scoundrels in high positions, or recent reports of Harry Markopolos’ fruitless ten-year plea to get the SEC to look carefully at Bernard Madoff, as a reminder that Israel’s not the only country with compromised regulatory agencies). But now, with Israeli election season upon us once again, sidestepping the jealousy factor is getting harder. For once again, Israelis are getting ready to select a leader from among candidates whom we’ve already rejected in the past. We’ve got Barak, Livni and Netanyahu. Two of them have already failed as Prime Minister, and one failed to form a government when given the opportunity. And none have any new ideas. Them’s the pickings, as they say.

While opinions about the outcome of America’s elections are still very much divided (especially in the Jewish community), there’s no denying that America’s campaign did produce a host of new faces, and it shattered old barriers to candidacy. Four years ago, how many Americans had even heard of Barack Obama? Or John McCain? To say nothing of Mike Huckabee. Or Mitt Romney? And twenty years ago, who would have imagined a field of candidates that included an African-American, a preacher, a Mormon, a man whose wife is battling breast cancer, and a woman? You can love the results, or fear the results. But you have to admit – it’s an astounding democracy. And given the Israeli “same ‘ole, same ‘ole” roster, what America accomplished this year is cause for no shortage of envy. (In Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, I actually argue that it would be a fatal mistake for Israel to aspire to America’s sort of democracy, but that’s another story.)

I’m expecting another massive envy-hit on January 20th. Again, whatever one thinks of him, his positions or his likely policies, Obama’s one heck of an orator, and his Inaugural Address, I’m betting, is going to be a classic, likely to contain some line that will join the ranks of “nothing to fear but fear itself” or “ask not what your country can do for you.” We’ll see.

Maybe it will be a play on “Yes We Can.” The phrase certainly moves people the sight of many thousands of whites (along with blacks, of course), joining the Gospel-like chant of “Yes We Can” made that eminently clear. Americans, at least many of them, have come to genuinely believe in the possibility of new beginnings.

Which is cause for yet another round of America-envy. It’s not only because Americans have elected themselves a person who seems to be able to inspire millions to imagine something better, which no Israeli candidate has the slightest change of doing. More significantly, it’s because Israelis are no longer so terribly convinced that They Can. What America has recovered, we have lost. America’s newfound faith in possibility is mirrored here by the evaporation of that optimism.

The country that once pulled off Entebbe can’t figure out how to get Gilad Shalit back home. The country with the ragtag army that defeated numerous standing armies arrayed to destroy it in 1947-49 can’t figure out how to stop Hamas and the Islamic Jihad from raining virtually home-made Kassams down on Sderot, Ashkelon and soon, who knows where else? A country that was once more than amply convinced of the legitimacy of its cause has been so beaten down by decades of war and the incessant international chorus wondering aloud whether or not it has a right to exist (a question asked about no other country on the planet, obviously) that now, many of its young and some of its leaders have decided that it’s time to give up on Zionism altogether.

The country for which excellence was once a non-negotiable standard now runs an educational system that has our kids’ standing in international ranking plummeting, a public university system beset by strikes and dwindling budgets and a highway system that’s become a nationally recognized public death-trap, with a system of enforcement so pathetic that a bus driver with 22 previous violations can speed his bus off a cliff and kill dozens of people – and no one’s terribly surprised. (Indeed, the country’s deadliest traffic accident in its entire history disappeared from the headlines in a matter of days.)

People react to this state of affairs in varying ways. Some tune out, and just live their lives waiting to hear that something’s gotten better. Others leave for greener pastures. Some, especially among the young, the most noble of the bunch (the subject of an upcoming column), roll up their sleeves and do simply amazing things to make this country a better place. They’re the new Zionists, the ones who refuse to give in to despair, who reject the cynicism of those would give up just because the going has gotten tough, and who have taken the dream of old and have decided to make it their own. More on them down the road.

But in this season of kindling candles in the face of darkness, of lighting additional candles each night (rather than fewer, as should have been the case if the candles are meant to represent the oil, which obviously did decrease as the days went by), it can be helpful to be reminded that on Hanukkah, we gird ourselves for the future by telling stories about the past. We recount the story of the Maccabees and the Greeks not because we need one more history lesson, but because experience has taught us that recounting these narratives somehow fortifies us in our commitment to forge on.

Those stories are no less important today than they ever were. For often, they remind us why we’re here, why it is that we have no reason – and no right – to give up and walk away. For those vignettes from our past make it clear that long, long before this presidential campaign in America, Jews were saying “Yes, We Can.” That, in fact, is largely what we’ve always been about.

And so, a story. Towards the end of the summer, my wife and I were on a ship sailing back into Haifa from Europe. Like most of the people on board, we were sitting on the deck as the ship slowed down and inched its way into the Haifa port. Sitting next to us, a woman in her eighties whom we’d met along the way but whom we hadn’t gotten to know terribly well, watched as the port grew closer, and said, “It’s very moving, isn’t it?”

Especially with a newly drafted son just weeks into his army service, it was, indeed, good to be home. But I can’t say that I thought that sailing into Haifa was the most moving thing in the world. So I gently asked her, “Why?” in response to which she told us her story. She was nineteen during the war, from a religious but not Zionist family. Her father realized that they might not survive Europe, even where they were hiding, and told her he was sending her out (how he could do so is a long story). She could go to America, or she could go to Palestine. She was nineteen, but it was up to her to decide. He and her mother wouldn’t be following. She’d never given much thought to Palestine, but she had a sister who’d already moved here. She agonized for weeks, and decided on Palestine.

Eventually, after travails we will not review here, she boarded her ship, and sailed for Palestine. The ship we were on was hardly of Cunard Line quality, but, she told us almost laughing, it was a floating Taj Mahal compared to what they had been on. She described crowding and hunger of the sort that we could scarcely imagine. For the passengers who kept kosher, there was nothing but crackers and jam, with water, for the weeks that it took them to sail to Palestine’s shores. At the shore, of course, they were stopped by the British. Other boats stopped at the same time, she told us, got permission from the rabbis on board to drill holes in the bottoms of the ships, even on Shabbat, so that the boats would start to sink. Their assumption – correct as it turned out – was that the British would not let them drown, and would bring them to shore. They might end up in captivity, but at least they’d be in Palestine. So they sank their own boats. They simply weren’t going back to Europe.

Our newfound friend’s boat wasn’t sunk, but like the others, they were taken by the British to Atlit, the prison camp still preserved not far from today’s Zichron Ya’akov. There, too, she told us, she was given the job of distributing the crackers and jam they got as food, since the British seemed to have nothing else to offer that was even remotely kosher. Eventually, they were released, and she, like the others, started from scratch and began to make lives for themselves.

Here she was, scarcely out of her teens, alone except for a sister, in a country that barely existed. About sixty years later, she told us, she told her children that for her eightieth birthday, she wanted them all to get in a few cars, and she would lead them, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren around Jerusalem showing them the places that had been important to her over the past decades. Places she’d lived, where she’d worked, where significant memories had been etched. They agreed on a date and time, and a son-in-law knocked at her door to take her to the car. But there was no car. Instead, there was a bus. And instead of her immediate family, it was children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews and many more – literally dozens of people filling a bus. She’d come alone, she told us in a voice quivering with emotion, and now, six decades later, the family she’d created could barely fit into a bus.

And that, she said, was why she had gone on the cruise. Getting on in years, she told herself, she was determined that one time, even if only once, she would sail back into Haifa as a free citizen. She would sail out, and then sail in, knowing that this time, no one would stop her ship. She would sail out and eat real food, not crackers and jam, in a cabin she’d share with but one friend. She would sail into Haifa not afraid and alone, but back into the loving embrace of an enormous extended family that has now set deep roots, that lives in the land about which she’d barely even thought when she first set sail.

As we light Hanukkah candles this week, I’m going to be thinking of our new friend and that memorable conversation on the deck of our ship. For as extraordinary a person as she is, her story is not unique, or even that unusual in that generation. Her generation understood very well that the point of Jewish history was Yes, We Can. And as we sing Maoz Tzur, with one stanza about having survived Egyptian slavery, another about the Babylonian exile, one about Haman, and one about the Greeks (which is why abbreviating that song essentially kills it), I won’t be able to help but remind myself that the story doesn’t end there. It continues today, in this little, tumultuous, often less-happy-than-it-ought-to-be place.

The truth is, ours is a story not of mere survival, but of flourishing. Are the roads here ridiculously dangerous? Yes, they are. Is Israel’s educational system an embarrassment? Yes, it is. Are our enemies infinitely more self-destructive and intransigent than we’d imagined they’d be? Yes, they are. Are our choices in foreign policy much more limited than we wished they might be? Yes, they are. And are the candidates tired, boring, devoid of any fresh ideas? Yes, they are.

And all that, admittedly, needs to be fixed.

But in the meantime, especially at this season, it’s important not to lose our sense of proportion. Obama, for all his impressive intellect, charisma, extraordinary rhetoric and more, didn’t really invent “Yes, We Can.” Jews have been saying it for a long time. The age-old Jewish determination that nothing would stop us from surviving ¬¬is what got people to sink their own boats so as to make it to shore. It’s what got young women, with every reason to be paralyzed by fear, to take a deep breath, to strive forward and to build new lives. It’s what still brings people here, knowing that their children will grow up in smaller homes, live with a bit more danger, forego the veneer of civility that often makes American life so appealing and serve in the army, often at considerable personal risk – because at our core, long before the 2008 campaign got underway in Iowa, we were a people that taught the world what it means to say “Yes, We Can.”

That, in the end, is what this coming week is about. We’re supposed to do a lot more than light a bunch of candles. We’re supposed to ask ourselves how it is that the Egyptians (of old) are gone, but we’re still here. That the Persians (of old) are gone, but we’re still here. That the Greeks (of old) are gone, and we’re still here. And that the whole world either conspired with the Nazis or did virtually nothing to save us, and we’re still here, flourishing as never before. That’s what Hanukkah is about. It’s about asking what we have done to survive thus far, and about making a commitment that we’re not going to be the last generation to add a chapter to the narrative. That’s why we light those candles. And that’s why we don’t imitate the decreasing level of oil by decreasing the number of candles (though one Talmudic view proposed exactly that) – because we’re a people that insists that at the end of the eight days, the hanukkiah simply has to burn brighter than it did a week earlier.

As the historian Barbara Tuchman notes, of all the peoples of the Western world three thousand years ago, it is only the Jews who still go by the same name, live in the same place, speak the same language and practice the same religion as they did then. One hundred years ago that claim would not have been true. It’s true today because we’ve come home, refashioned a language, and rebuilt a nation. It’s true today because giving up hasn’t been part of our vocabulary, and because most of us have no intention of adding it to our lexicon now.

Especially on Hanukkah, there’s no reason to react to America’s newfound inspiration with jealousy. The appropriate response would be determination. Gazan terrorists want to make life in Sderot impossible? Then let’s take a page from history and destroy them, before they destroy us. And let’s do it very soon. Israel’s schools are an abomination, especially given the focus that Jews have always placed on education? Then let’s build something new that will begin to set things right. And so on.

There’s no reason to be jealous of the Yes We Can spirit in America. We ought to admire it, but not envy it. For we’ve been saying exactly that for a very long time. America’s newfound chant ought to be our wake-up call to listen to ourselves, to what we’ve long been saying.

And our response? It ought to be a simple rejoinder, and a truthful reminder, of which this country is the ultimate proof: Yes, We Could. Yes, We Did.

And Yes, We Will. No matter what it takes, we will.

Happy Hanukkah.

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