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A Modest Proposal

January 15, 2009

When we lived in the States, periods like this were agonizing for me, providing, as they did, massive overdoses of cognitive dissonance. I was thinking about only one place, but I’d chosen to live in another. I was concerned about one group of people more than anyone else, but I’d elected not to live with them. The gap between what I felt and where I made my home felt unbearable.

Yes, we sought to compensate. In those pre-Internet days, we read the paper voraciously. We listened to the radio incessantly, and when things were truly tense, we found ways of rigging up televisions in our offices. But still, it was vicarious participation, and at times, the pain of that dissonance was more than I could bear.

That’s probably how we ended up living here.

But not everyone can make that move. Not everyone wants to. Yet since the Gaza operation began, my in-box has been filled with people abroad asking “What can we do from here?” Some of my friends belittle the question. “They don’t really mean it,” they tell me. “Let them move here and have their kids go to Gaza,” they say. But I’m not so quick to judge. There are a host of good reasons that keep people from coming here to live. For those, is there really nothing they can do?

IN THE tradition of Jonathan Swift, I herewith offer a “modest proposal” that would permit many more Diaspora Jews to be part of our angst and our joy, the tears and the celebrations of Israeli life. They’d understand us better than they can from either their perches in suburban America or the luxury hotels in which they park themselves when they come for visits, and inevitably, they’d then make our case in ways that they simply can’t right now.

Imagine a world in which every synagogue, every federation and every JCC purchased an apartment in Israel for its members to use on their visits. Not some million dollar apartment in Baka or the German Colony, or an apartment in one of those tourist neighborhoods that turns into a ghost town between Succot and Hanukka, and then again until Pessah. The kind of apartment that I’m suggesting would cost substantially less than that. It wouldn’t have to be palatial. It could be in Tel Aviv, or Haifa, or Kfar Saba.

Forget the contribution to the country’s economy that this would make. Infinitely more important is the impact that this would have on Diaspora Jews. Were I a member of a synagogue in Dayton or Denver, the mere fact of my membership would mean that I also have an address in Israel. When I wanted to go there, I would just call the synagogue or the JCC, and sign up for dates that are free. No more hotels for me.

I’d live in “real” neighborhoods. Sitting not in the Inbal’s dining room, but at some sidewalk cafĂ©, I’d feel the tension on days when thousands of young men are sent into Gaza. I’d see, perhaps for the first time, how an entire restaurant grows almost silent when those hourly beeps herald the reading of the news. There’s a world of difference between CNN’s depiction of Israel as a massive military machine and a room full of soldiers’ parents with worry etched on their faces. For the first time, I’d get it, and so would my teenage kids, too often confused and troubled by the news purveyed by CNN and the BBC.

And on days when nothing dramatic transpires, as I stood on line at the local grocery in the morning to pick up bread, milk and juice, I’d see white Jews and black Jews, religious Jews and secular Jews, immigrants and natives. Jews in my American suburban neighborhood all look pretty much the same. In “my” Israeli neighborhood, though, they wouldn’t. Now, some of the divisiveness of Israeli society that from afar makes no sense to me would pale relative to the country’s accomplishments in immigrant absorption. I’d begin to understand why policy-making here is an often Sisyphean challenge.

WHEN I occasionally go back to the town where I went to college, I feel a sense of belonging, warmth that comes from knowing the landscape and the “vibe” of the community, no matter how much it’s changed in the interim. It feels like I’ve “come home.” Now, my kids would begin to feel that sense of belonging, not only at their college campus, but in the country to which they, and too many of their friends, don’t feel the attachment that I wish they did. That apartment would change my kids’ lives, too.

Would I understand everything happening around me? No, I wouldn’t. Israel has an annoying habit of conducting its life in Hebrew, a language I never really learned. I’d feel a bit like an outsider. And I’d be reminded that in abandoning a serious commitment to Hebrew, American Judaism made an error of historic dimensions. If I worked at it, I might eventually understand Israel’s movies, papers and radio, and feel its soul even more intimately.

None of this would make my life simpler. It would confuse me and frustrate me. It would delight me and anger me. It would, in a word, give me a glimpse of the complexity of Israeli life. I’d be a better advocate. Were I really ambitious, I could make sure that in a large synagogue, we made a point ensuring that the apartment was never empty – that year-round, we had someone on the ground in the only permanent home the Jews have.

Would this save Israel? Probably not. But it would change my life and my family. It would connect me to the country in ways that I can now not even begin to imagine. And perhaps most importantly, it would give me a chance to test how serious I was about really wanting to make a difference.

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