I wrote this piece after returning from a two week stay in Israel. The primary purpose of my stay was to deliver a talk at the World Congress on Jewish Studies. Along the way I spoke with many Israelis, both native born and olim (immigrants to Israel). The people I spoke with ranged from very religious to very secular and from persons on the left to persons on the right. As this visit occurred on the eve of the pullout from Gaza, people were anxious to speak about this issue and how they see it affecting the future.
Many of the most interesting conversations I had were not with Israelis but with Americans visiting Israel. Unlike the Israelis, whose opinions varied on religious and/or political beliefs, the Americans differed in their level of understanding of Israel itself. Some of these Americans came to Israel with a strong understanding of the country and its achievements and challenges; some came with no background but open minds, and some came armed with idealized visions of the country, mythical versions of Israel taught in their synagogues, Jewish communal organizations, and by the fund raising apparatus.
Of these three groups, I am concerned about the third, the people who come with an idealized vision of what Israel is because 1) there seemed to be so many Americans in this category and 2) their idealized visions of Israel are not something they developed themselves but were taught by Jewish institutions in the United States. I think these idealized visions, rather than helping Israel and American Jewry, are in fact doing a great deal of harm.
There are two specific visions of the state that I encountered most often in my conversations with American Jewish tourists. The first is the “Israel is perfect” vision. Think of the movie Exodus, where all of Israel’s many achievements are described in detail and any problems, challenges (aside from those that could be solved by more American Jewish money) or major differences of opinion within Israeli society are either glossed over or blamed on the Arabs. The fact that there are no Israelis (as far as I can tell) who blame all their problems on the Arabs while blaming none of their problems on other Israelis (especially those in public office) does not stop certain American Jewish organizations from teaching this particular vision of Israel. This particular idealized vision leads to two problems. One, a failure to understand current Israeli society and its problems and opportunities (by opportunities I mean, in part, chances for investment; one ill effect of this idealized vision is that Israel is still seen as a charity case needing American donations rather than investment). This vision also leads to disappointment and even hatred of Israel because the facts on the gound do not match the fantasy. There is a shock when it’s discovered that Israelis are people, not saints or sociological categories. The clash between the idealized vision and the daily reality leads some people to decide that the whole state, and the Zionist vision that founded the state, are lies.
The second idealized vision includes people who see themselves as committed to one side or the other in the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians and who cannot understand either the complexities or the human faces to some of these issues. Visitors from the United States meet only with members of this or that political organization and never see a spectrum of views from either the Israeli or Palestinian side, much less meeting people on both sides of the conflict. A visit to Israel that includes spending all one’s time in the West Bank, on either side of the conflict, provides a skewed view of what is really happening. But such visits take place all the time. And this leads to the title of this piece.
As I was waiting in Ben Gurion Airport for my flight out, I saw an American Jew trying to complain to a member of the cleaning staff. I went over to try to help by translating between the cleaning person who spoke no English and the American Jew who spoke no Hebrew. What I discovered was an American Jew who had been temporarily separated from his French fries by a cleaning person who had moved his table in order to sweep the floor. The fries had become cold, and the American wanted the cleaning person to purchase another package of fries for him, holding her responsible for the state of his fries. The American was clearly very angry, and as I spoke to him it became clear that his anger was less the result of the cold fries and more the result of his assumption, based on no evidence, that the cleaning person was an Arab and that this was done to him because he was a Jew (which the cleaning person would have known from the kippah on the head of the aggrieved American). I refused to ask the cleaning person about her nationality, and left the scene while the American demanded that the police be brought into this incident. I continued to observe from a distance, and saw an array of persons, from the supervisor of the cleaning person to airport staff to someone from the McDonalds speaking to the American. I don’t know how the whole thing turned out, and I wasn’t worried that this incident would spark a new intifada, but I did feel that the drama that played out over an order of French fries was paradigmatic of the larger problem — seeing everyone and everything in the Middle East in ideological terms. I have no idea of whether the cleaning person was a Jew or an Arab, but I am quite sure that it was very late, she probably was anxious to go home, and perhaps she did not care a whole lot about whether she inconvenienced someone in the process. But that does not make the incident one about the regional conflict.
We need to improve our education about Israel within the Jewish community so that it becomes a real place with real people, Jewish and Arab. The cost of not doing so is the perception that Israel is all one thing or another, with no in-between, with no recognition that it has its saints and its sinners (who is which depends on taste), and that we should support the state and the best forces within it and the values they represent without having to turn it into an idealized entity. Idealization can only lead to one of two things: disappointment when the reality doesn’t meet the idea or a refusal to understand that there must be compromise on both sides for peace. In either case, it is Israel, which is after all still an amazing place in spite of the problems it faces, that is the real loser of the McDonald’s Intifada.