Commentary Magazine

Americans in Israel

There are times when an American settler in Israel might think he was back in the 50’s all over again.

Suddenly everyone is talking about a house in the suburbs. Television is still a novelty but so is the family that doesn’t have one, and the tangled masts of antennas over Israel’s cities make them look like beached fishing fleets that could well sail away in the night. If the movie houses are consequently emptier than they used to be, the new supermarkets are always full: the girls at the check-out counters have their names embroidered on their uniforms in Hebrew and live carp for gefilte fish cruise in the aerated pools. The first generation of frozen foods. Of superhighways. Of motels. Of high-rise apartments. In the elevator of a new office building in Tel Aviv the unsuspecting American is accosted by the familiar sound of Muzak. Even the pop songs on the radio, which have all but driven out the earnest if somewhat ersatz attempts of former years to create an indigenous Israeli folk music of a vaguely Oriental character, are dreamy and soft. One could practically fox-trot to them.

At social gatherings the guests sit around a table and talk. About the prices and virtues of things: Washing machines. Dishwashers. Automobiles. A trip to Europe. So-and-so is divorced. So-and-so is in therapy (ten years ago he wouldn’t have gone). Perhaps a political discussion. Among liberals—and most educated Israelis today are liberals, if by that one means that they still believe in the power of things to get gradually better without getting gradually worse—there is a consensus of sorts: the present government may be ineffective but there is no realistic alternative in sight. Once it was Ben-Gurion who seemed to last forever, now it is Golda. Even an erstwhile young Turk like Dayan—and if there is one person in Israel who can bring even liberals to verbal blows, it is Dayan—is already pushing sixty and no nearer the prime ministry. The brutal cost-of-living. The latest financial scandals. The impossible taxes and how to get around them. (A friend tells the following story: his wife, a textile designer, had been working at a job for a take-home salary of 900 Israeli pounds, about 200 American dollars, a month. One day she was approached by a competing firm with an offer of 1500. When she told her boss about it, he explained that he could not possibly afford such a raise, because in her tax bracket it would mean a gross increase of over double the amount. Perhaps, though, he could have a day to think it over. The next morning he proposed a solution: he would raise her net take-home pay to 1100, and put her maid, whom she paid 400 pounds a month, on the company payroll.) The need for basic reforms. The unlikelihood of them before a détente with the Arabs. The unlikelihood of a détente with the Arabs.

An Israeli professor I talk to complains about his students: they are conformist, they don’t think for themselves, they simply want to pass the exams. Others agree: the young are a silent generation. The son of recent American immigrants who is attending one of the best academic high schools in Israel tells me how frustrated he and his friends are in school. They are expected to learn everything by rote, they are given no room to express or pursue their own interests. They feel regimented and locked-in, but the pressures to do well, to get into the university and succeed in a career (and before that of course in the army), are enormous and they keep their feelings to themselves. I could have told him about growing up in the 50’s.

If Israel has become in some ways more like the America that was, the attitude toward America itself has also changed. In the 50’s, particularly at the start of the decade, the majority of Israeli intellectuals leaned to the Left. Pro-Russian feeling was still strong in some circles, but even where it had waned, or never really existed, there was little inclination to identify with the West. Had not the human facade of Western civilization itself been consumed in the ovens of Auschwitz? Besides which, the Jewish people had not regained its independence after two thousand years in order to create another little bourgeois state: Israel was to be something new, a unique undertaking that was neither East nor West, a radically successful experiment in democratic socialism. It had worked in the kibbutz—why not in society at large? As for the United States, the American settler in Israel might not have been enamored of its politics himself, but he repeatedly found himself having to defend his native land against the unprovoked attacks of his Israeli acquaintances. Why had America begun the cold war? Why was a fascist like Joe McCarthy allowed to terrorize the whole United States? Why were the Negroes so brutally persecuted? Why was American culture so vulgar? Why did the State Department continue to support reactionary Arab rulers like Abdullah or Farouk, who were simply the front men for American and British oil interests?

This last question was asked with a particular sense of grievance, because if one thing was clear to the educated Israeli, it was that peace with the Arabs depended on a social revolution in the Arab countries themselves. The corrupt Arab feudal lords deliberately fanned hatred for Israel in order to create an outlet for popular discontent and because they feared the Jewish state’s dynamic influence on their own enslaved masses; a truly progressive Arab regime, one dedicated to developing its own resources and freeing itself from imperialist domination, would find natural allies in the Israelis. Why didn’t the Americans encourage such a process? What made them so short-sighted? And American Jews! Why were they so materialistic? Why didn’t they come to join in the building of the new state? Even the money that they sent was at bottom tainted, an inadmissible form of ransom for their missing selves. What had happened to the Jewish sense of idealism, to say nothing of realism? Did they really think they would be safe among the fleshpots of Goshen forever? The trouble with the Jews was that they never learned. Take Germany, for example: hadn’t the Jews been wealthy, powerful, secure there, too, hadn’t they been patriots, more German than the Germans? The goyim in America were basically no different: scratch one and you found an anti-Semite like anywhere else. It was clear in fact that the Jewish idyll in America was already nearing its end: just look at the Rosenberg case.



The American returning to Israel in the 70’s soon finds that he has returned to a different conversation. It could well be with the same old friend, now twenty years older, yet he too has mellowed with the times: the intense young kibbutz intellectual is now a university professor who is graying at the temples and carries a slight paunch. Then he strode into a Tel Aviv café in khaki shorts—now he wears a tweed jacket and is smoking a pipe. Yes, he left the kibbutz a long time ago—toward the end of the 50’s, in fact. By then the socialist ardor of his fellow kibbutzniks had cooled, along with their sense of embodying an alternate life-style which sooner or later the rest of Israel—perhaps one day of the world—would take as its model. Besides, he had wanted to study, to travel—life on the kibbutz had seemed so confining. He obtained his B.A. in Jerusalem and then was lucky enough to receive a graduate fellowship at a well-known American university. How different the United States had been from what he had imagined: a hospitable, broad-minded, civilized country, which made him, the Israeli, realize for the first time in his life how truly provincial he was. If he had come to America convinced that Americans were the most materialistic of people, he had reached the very opposite conclusion by the time his three years there were up: if anything, he now thought, they were the least, for more than anyone else on the face of the earth they were able to satisfy their material ambitions and worry about higher things. If only Israel had a little of America’s “materialism,” its knack for getting things done. Even American Jews had been a pleasant surprise. Sometimes of course you met one who lived up to the crass stereotype that was held by Israelis, but this was generally a member of the older generation, not American-born. The young Jews he got to know at the university were a delightfully sophisticated group. It was a sad admission to make, yet he could understand why life in Israel had little attraction for them. Only, what was happening to America now? It was pathetic to see a great nation wallowing in an orgy of guilt. Could it really be that the hippies, the violence, the permissiveness, the decadence, were symptoms of an incurable rot? The involvement in Vietnam was a tragic mistake, of course, but to fail to see it through to the end could only make things worse. The results would be fatal the world over, for only a strong American deterrent could thwart the Russian dream of global domination. Why couldn’t the United States understand that Israel was fighting in the Middle East not only for itself but on behalf of the entire free world, on behalf of the West? Why were so many American-Jewish students and intellectuals taken in by the pro-Arab propaganda of the Left? One would never have thought to see such an outbreak of Jewish self-hatred in a country that had been so good to the Jews. No, one thing was certain: the Jews never learned. . . .

It is ironic of course that Israelis should have discovered the cold war just when Americans have grown justifiably sick of it, yet a good part of the difficulty in communication between Israelis and Americans, and particularly between Israelis and American Jews, has been that from the very beginning the intellectual and cultural climates of the two countries have been profoundly out of phase. If the 50’s in America were predominantly a period of quiescence, in Israel they were one of fierce ideological debate between Left and Right, secularists and clericalists, Zionists and “Canaanites,” cultural nationalists and cultural cosmopolitans. As in much of Europe, whose influence at the time was still greater than that of the United States, the early 50’s represented less a break with the ideological battles of the 30’s than a running continuation of them. In Israel, however, it was not only the politics of the new state that seemed essentially up for definition but its very social and cultural fabric, especially as the mass immigration of those years appeared to provide a unique opportunity to recast the lives of hundreds of thousands of uprooted people in new, freely devised molds. It was a time characterized by an enormous sense of the possible, and if the amount of social experimentation that actually took place in it fell short of the expectations of some, it was considerable by any standard. Yet as heated as was the competition of ideas in those years, so was the atmosphere of dogmatism in which it took place: friendships, political alliances, even an entire kibbutz movement, foundered and split apart over issues which in retrospect often seemed academic. To the American, accustomed to the more tolerant, pragmatic nature of intellectual life in the States, all this was oppressive. The Israelis, he might have thought, were in some ways admirably intense, but in their fanatical devotion to rectitude of principle as opposed to reasonableness of action they were frequently also absurd.

At the same time, the early 50’s in Israel were years of considerable economic hardship. Many of the basic necessities were still under postwar rationing, while such luxuries of life as a “villa”—the word used by Israelis to this day to denote what would be considered a modest private house in any country in the West—a car, or even major electrical appliances, were put almost universally beyond reach by a combination of low wage-scales and exorbitant sales and import taxes. Because the spartan existence of these years was shared not only by the ordinary laborer and new immigrant but by the country’s managerial and professional elite as well (not only did Jews not come with money to the Palestine of the British Mandate, they did not make it there either, for the more skilled or talented they were, the more their energies were devoted to the collective struggle of the Jewish yishuv; in any case, the opportunities for getting rich under the Mandate were limited at best, for industry was nonexistent and Jewish agriculture was almost entirely collectivized), the Israel of the early 50’s was one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, one in which old wealth did not exist and new wealth had yet to be created. This economic equality went well with the ideological stresses of the times, but it took a heavy psychological toll in terms of constantly deferred expectations and a rising sense of frustration as the gap between the standard of living enjoyed by the average Israeli and that of his counterpart in the West steadily widened.

Thus, the sense of embourgeoisement that characterizes so much of Israeli life today must be viewed in part as a reaction against the ideological demands and the economic privations of the 50’s, just as the 50’s in America must be seen in the context of the Depression and the political and intellectual quarrels of the 30’s. Having been fully active in Zionist youth movements as teenagers or in the underground in the last years of the British Mandate before serving in the Palmach or Haganah and then settling on the kibbutz, or going into government service, or beginning to study toward an undergraduate degree after the 1948 War of Independence, the generation of middle-class Israelis born in the 1920’s or early 30’s has just begun to establish itself economically and approach the level of consumption enjoyed by the middle-class family in the West, if only at the price of heavy borrowing and the incurring of lifelong debts. The children of this generation, born in the late 40’s or 50’s, have had the disenchanting experience of being educated in the old ideological molds at the precise moment when their real hold on national life was rapidly fading. Thus, the decline of ideology in Israeli life and the rise of middle-class values have been mutually abetting: if, on the one hand, Israel’s transformation into a consumer society and its increasing economic stratification have made the ideological postures of the 50’s seem already antique, the failure of all schools of Zionist thought to anticipate or account for such post-1948 realities as the prolongation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the absence of large-scale Jewish immigration from the West, or the social and economic conflicts that have developed within the Jewish state itself, has encouraged educated Israelis increasingly to rationalize a life built around the pursuit of getting and spending. The plain fact of the matter is that even the most patriotic Israeli is tired of being told what he can do for his country. He has done, he feels, a great deal as it is and is continuing to do more every year in the form of a month-or-longer’s annual service in the reserves, a six-day work week, and payment of the world’s highest taxes not only on his income but on practically everything he buys or sells. In return he is asking little more than the right to enjoy without guilt the modest hedonistic pleasures that life in the 70’s at long last is beginning to bring his way.



It might be imagined that the dramatic events of recent years—the Six-Day War and the increasing flow of immigration from the West and particularly from the Soviet Union—would have worked to reverse this trend of “de-Zionization,” and in a sense they have; yet they have also had the opposite effect of feeding the growing materialism of Israeli life, and it is this seeming paradox that generates the peculiar strain under which Israeli society as a whole has lately been laboring. The war itself, certainly, created not only a powerful feeling of internal unity—a feeling, needless to say, that has slowly been wearing off, like any intoxicant—but more importantly in the long run, a renewed sense of identification with the past, beginning with 1948 and the Holocaust years, and progressively on back through the course of Jewish history to the biblical resonances of such places on the conquered West Bank as Bethlehem, Hebron, Shechem, Jericho, and, of course, Jerusalem. Indeed, the war clearly touched a subterranean well of sentiment whose true emotional and even mythic reserves cannot yet be estimated. More prosaically, however, it did something else, which was to bring Israel out of its severe 1966-67 recession and launch it on a postwar boom that so far shows little sign of slackening, much as World War II brought an end to the Depression and fueled the U.S. economic expansion of the 40’s and 50’s.

For Israel this nexus of war and profit has been something new. If no one in the country grew privately rich from the military outcome of the 1948 War of Independence or the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the same cannot be said of 1967. The significant economic fact about 1967 is not merely that it led to a near tripling of Israel’s pre-war defense budget, but that in addition—in good measure due to the lesson of de Gaulle’s embargo—a far greater share of the annual defense expenditure is now being invested in domestic production rather than in foreign procurement. Besides exerting a strong inflationary pressure on an already overheated economy, this situation has led for the first time to the creation of what might be accurately called an Israeli military-industrial complex and has helped bring into existence an entire new class of nouveaux riches, military contractors and subcontractors who have been flooded with hundreds of millions of pounds worth of orders for anything from the building of front-line fortifications on the Suez to research-and-development projects for the manufacture of sophisticated electronic equipment. A conspicuous new subculture of expense-accounts and high living has mushroomed, and in at least one case, that of the Sinai oil fields, has resulted in a major financial scandal directly attributable to the post-1967 military occupation. It is certainly not the least of the moral dilemmas posed by the war and its aftermath that what was and essentially continues to be a struggle for national survival has become at the same time a source of considerable aggrandizement for some Israelis and a spur to the acquisitive instincts of nearly all.

The story of immigration has been equally problematic. Israel is a country which has always lived off immigration psychologically as well as economically, and if the slowdown of the middle 60’s was in large measure caused by the effects of a sharp decline in immigration once the flow from Eastern Europe and the Arab countries had dried up, the overall malaise of those years was equally a product of the feeling that without new immigrants the Zionist rationale of the state had ceased to exist. It goes without saying therefore that the jump in immigration following the Six-Day War has, like the war itself, helped restore a sense of national purpose to Israeli life—yet it too has had its complications. Unlike the immigrants of the late 40’s or 50’s, many of those arriving today come with considerable means, in addition to which they receive a wide range of economic benefits from the government in the form of a series of subsidies, tax and customs rebates, and low-interest bank mortgages that are made available to them during their first three years in the country. These benefits, which were introduced shortly after the 1967 war in the hope of further encouraging the wave of potential new immigrants that the war produced, have clearly played a role in the current upsurge of immigration, though exactly how much of one is difficult, to determine; they have also, however, succeeded in creating a highly ambivalent attitude toward the immigration among many Israelis, particularly among the poorer population, hundreds of thousands of whom remember how they arrived in the country not long ago themselves with little or nothing but got nowhere near the amount of financial aid that today’s more affluent immigrants receive. It is one thing after all to tell the Israeli taxpayer that he must tighten his belt to help accommodate the roughly 70,000 new immigrants who are expected to arrive in 1972; it is another to explain to him that many of them will not come at all unless they can be assured of the kind of middle-class existence to which they may have been accustomed in their native lands but which to the average Israeli is still an unsatisfied aspiration. His resentment is less likely to be directed against the Russian Jews, who come with less and have had to struggle for the right to come at all, than against immigrants from Western Europe and especially America, who arrive with their cars, their appliances, their crates full of furniture, and their dollars with which to buy homes that 90 per cent of Israelis cannot possibly afford and which would not cost as much if these very same dollars had not helped contribute to a wild inflation of real-estate prices. It is an existence which Israelis envy and which many of them feel they should not be asked to support as long as they cannot emulate it themselves. If no American can be expected to want to live in Israel without such creature comforts, they not illogically reason, why should they?

Why indeed?




Pity the poor American immigrant! He certainly does not expect to be envied; at first, in fact, it seems incredible to him that he should be. He has gotten an interest-free loan of one or two thousand dollars to help transport his possessions to Israel? But if he is coming with a family of four, moving alone may cost him several times that amount. He is allowed to bring a new car into Israel tax-free, a car on which the Israeli citizen would have to pay a customs duty of approximately 200 per cent? But in America he Was used to two cars; this one will have to last him the rest of his life if he does not want to pay customs on another; and its annual upkeep alone may cost him 20 per cent of his Israeli salary. The 40- to 50,000-pound mortgage that is automatically his as an immigrant is available to no Israeli on equally good terms? But it is not his fault that Israel has practically no rental system to speak of and that the house or apartment that will satisfy his minimal requirements will cost him 100,000 pounds or more to buy, whereas in America he could have gotten a bank mortgage for nearly the entire sum. And so it goes: the loans, the subsidies, the rebates, the incentives—at best they serve to defray part of his expenses and to cushion him slightly against the almost inevitable drop in his standard of living that moving to Israel entails. Even at that he has hardly alighted from the plane before he finds himself staring with alarm at the prices in the shop windows, which may have seemed reasonable enough when he was last in Israel as a tourist with dollars, but which are clearly outrageous when judged by the salary he is now getting in pounds. A long list of little items (the big ones go without saying) that he wouldn’t have thought twice about buying on a whim in America has suddenly become out of bounds. In real terms, he calculates, the purchasing power of his income has at least been halved. Saving is out of the question; from now on he considers himself lucky if he can pay all his bills at the end of the month. If it weren’t so painful, the thought that he was an object of envy—he, whose decision to settle in Israel has involved so much sacrifice—would seem like a Jewish joke.

Still, he has come—and in growing numbers. From about 2,000 in 1968 the number of American immigrants to Israel has risen to about 6,000 in 1969, 7,000 in 1970, and 9,000 in 1971, with another 10,000 projected for 1972. These figures may still represent a minuscule percentage of the American-Jewish community as a whole and may even be proportionally small when compared to immigration from other countries in the West,1 but to appreciate them fully it need only be pointed out that they total far more than the number of American Jews who emigrated to Israel in the entire period between 1948 and 1967 and that no more than an estimated third of the latter were still in the country on the eve of the Six-Day War.

Even more dramatic in Israeli terms has been the rise in the American share of total annual immigration to Israel: from barely 1 per cent in the period 1948-67 to nearly 20 per cent in 1971. (This percentage will again dip of course if the current increase in immigration from Russia continues.) Clearly something has happened since the Six-Day War, though clearly, too, it would be erroneous to attribute it to the effect of the war alone. The war’s impact on American-Jewish consciousness was great, of course, but if the sudden illumination of a commonly sensed danger and solidarity had in itself been enough to make a significant number of American Jews seriously consider Israel as an alternative home, many apparently for the first time in their lives, what was it that kept such a reaction from occurring long ago—in 1948, for example, when by any objective standard the threat to the continuity of Jewish existence was far greater? Then, after all, the crematoria in Europe had barely stopped smoking; the danger of physical extermination faced by the Jews of Palestine was far greater; the prospect of any effective international intervention to prevent such a second Holocaust was far less; yet so was the number of American Jews who were moved by these considerations to any practical Zionist conclusions of their own. It is true of course that whereas in 1948 Israel was still a distant abstraction to most American Jews, it had become by 1967 a familiar reality, one whose threatened existence, many discovered in the course of a few short weeks, meant more to them than they had ever previously imagined. It would seem equally true, however, that for at least some American Jews, a correspondingly great change has taken place in their attitude toward America.



It would be surprising indeed if it hadn’t, considering the stunning psychological reversal in their sense of themselves that Americans as a whole have suffered. It would be going too far perhaps to suggest that the Jews have had a falling-out with America or America with the Jews—if the intellectual and literary philo-Semitism of the 50’s is today largely a thing of the past, it is not the first time that the Jews have been in or out of fashion in the world of American letters—but undeniably a growing number of American Jews have begun to wonder whether as a community they will ever again have it so good in the United States as they did during the two decades following the Second World War. Certainly that extraordinary psychological balance struck in the soul of the American Jew for the better part of this century between the sense of being American and the sense of being a Jew—the conviction indeed that only a rare destiny could have superimposed two terms so historically and culturally compatible—has become increasingly difficult to sustain. Though one can hardly label Zionist a vague unease that may initially have little to do with Israel, it has clearly proven a fertile ground for many of the feelings about Israel aroused by the Six-Day War. These feelings themselves of course are by no means universal; but the very fact that many American Jews do not share them only seems likely in the long run to strengthen the cohesiveness of those who do. If, indeed, as seems possible, the American-Jewish community is currently undergoing a process of polarization whereby one part of it is edging off the map of Jewish consciousness entirely while another is increasingly crystallizing around the issue of identification with Israel, the current rise in American-Jewish immigration to Israel may well be the start of a long-term trend.

Whether it is or not, however, a salient difference between the American settler in Israel today and his predecessor in the 50’s would seem to be that whereas the former is also immigrating to Israel, he is more commonly conscious of emigrating from conditions in the United States as well. His motives for emigration may vary widely and more often than not are likely to combine specifically Jewish preoccupations with a sense of that general deterioration in American life that has become a conversational staple throughout the United States. Among elderly people this may most frequently have to do with crime in the streets, or inflation, which makes it impossible to live on a pension or social-security check that can stretch much further in Israel, or the collapse of Jewish communal life in the old neighborhood; among younger couples, with job insecurity, or concern about the environment, or anxiety about the Jewish education of their children or about American youth culture generally; among students, with the anti-Israeli and at times openly anti-Semitic rhetoric of the New Left, or the rise of black separatism, which may have done more than anything else in America today to relegitimize a sense of Jewish nationalism in the eyes of the young.

In all of these cases, the American in Israel today enjoys a certain advantage in his ability to adjust over the American in the 50’s. In the first place, whatever his dissatisfactions with Israeli life—and these are likely, particularly at the outset, to be considerable—the temptation to return to his former existence in the States may simply not be that great. Secondly, because Americans themselves seem to have lost their sense of being history’s chosen people—because they increasingly seem to have lost the sense of being a single people at all—it has become subtly easier for the American Jew to shed that stubborn skin of American identity that so often hindered his integration into Israeli life in the past. Not that he is assured of finding his niche in Israel or that he may not re-emigrate in the end,2 but the almost neurotic ambivalence that characterized the world of so many Americans in Israel in the 50’s, that chronic anomie which made the same individual who had previously decided that he felt too intensely Jewish ever to be happy in America now decide that he felt too intensely American ever to be happy in Israel, would seem far less prevalent today. In this respect, at least, the immigrant from America has become more like the immigrant from elsewhere.



Adjustment has become easier in other ways too. A series of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings has made it possible for Americans in Israel to become de facto dual nationals like most other immigrants from the West and thus circumvent the painful dilemma of former years of having either to renounce their U.S. citizenship or refrain from becoming full Israelis.3 The very fact that there are many more Americans in Israel now helps to provide a broader social framework into which the new immigrant can fit and to shield him from an initial sense of isolation, while at the same time dispelling the oppressive feeling—so common among American settlers in Israel in the 50’s—of belonging to a small expatriate colony, each member of which knew every other. (True, one frequently hears Americans complain today too that while they do not lack for friends, few if any of these are “real” Israelis, yet sociologically speaking, new immigrants anywhere have always tended to group by country of origin. Certainly there is no evidence to indicate that Americans have more difficulty in getting to know Israelis than other immigrants, and they at least have the advantage of speaking a language that nearly all educated Israelis understand.) Indeed, if an immigrant community must attain a certain critical mass before it can function as an effective vehicle of integration for those who come after, the American presence in Israel has probably only recently reached that point.

The increased affluence of Israeli life has also proved an alleviating factor. It is not just that the American can now live in Israel in something closer to the style to which he is accustomed, albeit with a good deal of uncustomary scrimping, but that this style itself is no longer considered outlandish by his Israeli peers: it has in fact become very much their idea of the good life too. Even to feel occasionally envied, after all, is better than to feel disdained. The very word amerikai has lost its supercilious bite, and, if anything, the bearer of the title in Israel today is likely to feel uncomfortably embarrassed by the admiration he encounters for so much of the worst of American popular culture, by the automatic assumption that an American product is best, by the story he hears from a friend, an American immigrant himself, of how when the latter bought a house on a suburban street previously inhabited only by Israelis the value of every other dwelling on the block jumped by 25 per cent overnight. Amerikai indeed!

Granted, other aspects of Israeli life that plagued the American immigrant in the past have changed less. The amount of bureaucratic red-tape to which he is subjected, and which to a somewhat lesser extent is the permanent lot of every Israeli, can still reduce a brave man to tears; the overall quality of services and manners is as offhand as ever; the general level of efficiency, or lack of it, cannot be said to have noticeably improved. Here too, however, not all is as bad as it once was, and in any case, such annoyances are ruled by certain laws of relativity of whose existence the contemporary American is well aware. If twenty years ago, for example, he had to wait five years for a new telephone to be installed in Jerusalem and a week in New York, today his chances may be even in either place, except that in Israel he will remark how much better things have gotten. Granted, his new life seems extortionately expensive—yet it has its inestimable fringe benefits too, such as being able to walk the streets without fear after dark, or to breathe air in the cities that still smells like air, or to send his children to the nearest public school. Granted, hardly a day goes by without some new war scare in the papers—but eventually he learns to ignore it like his Israeli neighbors, and if things should flare up in the end, there is at least the compensation of that powerful current of solidarity that runs among Israelis at such times. It is then most of all, indeed, that the American immigrant is impressed by what it is like to live in a society where the forces that divide people from one another are still weaker than those that unite them, where commonly-shared norms, hopes, and fears still prevail, in which—however one cares to define it—there is a center that still holds. At such times America seems distant indeed.



And yet there are other times too. . . . No, it is not just that in being reminded of the 50’s the American is made to remember that if they were comfortable years to live in, they were also politically innocent, morally self-assured, aesthetically shallow, intellectually dull. It is not even just the retrospective awareness that their essential optimism rested on a cobweb of illusion regarding the power of modern social and technological engineering to solve a broad complex of problems without creating even worse ones in their place. It is in addition, quite simply, the knowledge that the era of the 50’s was short-lived. In fact, those years seem most remarkable already by the abruptness of their passing. Where was the American ten years ago who would have believed that life in his country could have soured as quickly as it did? Where is the American today who is not stricken with a positive sense of vertigo when he thinks back on the last decade?

It is this that makes the American immigrant in Israel today a natural worrier, for if among men he has uniquely seen the affluent future and known that it does not quite work, he is also apprehensively aware of with what dizzying speed a seemingly stable society can begin to malfunction once its stress points are badly overloaded. It is with a certain hypochondriacal anxiety, therefore, that he scans his new horizons for signs of the familiar disease. Has there recently been a rash of purse-snatchings in the streets of Tel Aviv, of burglaries in the apartments of Jerusalem? Are there days when a purple curtain of industrial smog is visible from afar over Haifa? Did he recently read in the newspapers that the serenely blue Sea of Galilee has reached a critical point of pollution? Do the traffic jams in Israel’s cities seem to worsen by the day while more and more families flee to the suburbs in their newly purchased cars? Does 40 per cent of the country’s population still live in substandard housing and half of this figure below what is officially considered the poverty line in Israel today? Has the rapid growth of Israel’s universities been accompanied by a steady decline in the quality of its elementary and secondary education? Have ethnic and religious tensions between Jews that were only recently considered to be disappearing begun to surface once again? Is the Israeli economy becoming increasingly dependent on unskilled and semi-skilled Arab labor from the occupied West Bank? To most Israelis such facts represent unrelated problems, each to be dealt with in itself. To the American, on the other hand, who views them with a growing sense of déjà vu, they are likely to seem part of a syndrome he knows only too well. Not that he wishes to be an alarmist; yet it is difficult to deny that if today, nearly five years after the triumphant Six-Day War, Israel is a wealthier and more powerful country than it has ever been before, it is also one that is beginning to show signs of increasing social strain. Certainly the country is laboring to do too many things at once: continually to expand the deterrent capacity of its military machine against the Arabs, to administer and partially settle the territories conquered in the Six-Day War, to encourage and absorb a growing wave of immigration, to sustain one of the world’s highest economic growth rates while simultaneously curbing inflation and reducing a staggering annual trade deficit, to widen an already extensive network of welfare services and improve living conditions among the urban and rural poor—and to do all this without raising the already barely supportable tax burden of the middle class or impinging on its newly achieved comforts. To achieve all of these aims is economically impossible; to abandon any of them, politically so; and the result has been a rising sense of discontent at practically all levels of Israeli society. At the same time, the gradual hardening of the arteries of Israel’s highly centralized political system, which at its most vigorous never provided a very adequate means of communication between Israelis and their government or even the political opposition, has prevented the public from venting its grievances in any constructive political form. It would be an exaggeration to say that Israel today is a demoralized country, but there is certainly a growing feeling that something is not going right. Are the Israeli 60’s, the American immigrant wonders, already under way?

Of course he knows better than to press the analogy: Israel, when all is said and done, is not America; Israelis (quite literally, as many an American-Jewish tourist has discovered to his surprise) are not a nation of whites; Arabs (or is it Sephardic Jews?) are not blacks; the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the war in Vietnam. How typically American to insist on being an object lesson in failure if one cannot be one in success! In talking with Israelis, indeed, the American immigrant is made to realize how, imperceptibly perhaps, he has been “radicalized” after all by the past decade of American life, if not in his politics then at least in his perceptions: whereas not long ago he was like most Americans a fundamental optimist about the power of reason and good will to cut through the most intractable social and national conflicts if only given a democratic chance, he harbors today a morbid awareness of the capacity of men in the most relatively democratic of societies to act in self-destructive disregard of their own (to say nothing of others’) interests. How naive the liberal faith of his Israeli friends seems to him—and how refreshing. Who is to say, after all, that they do not know their own country better than he does? Why judge them in his jaded American terms? And yet—if ultimately the comparison does seem significant, it is perhaps less because of the specific problems with which Israel is faced than because of a certain quality of the spirit that he judges common to both countries, a restlessness, a driven energy, an appealing confidence in action that can easily turn to frustration when thwarted. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that both are immigrant nations, born from a myth, a utopian construct of history no less than from history itself, and that both are condemned therefore to a perpetual quarrel with history and to a dangerously low threshold of disillusion; perhaps too with the natively classless ethos of both, which chafes against social inequities that might well be deemed tolerable elsewhere. (An American-Jewish tourist recently told me with a mixture of amusement and pique how she had been answered by an Israeli hotel clerk in reply to a simple question on her part, “Madam, if I were a prophet, I wouldn’t be here.” But, of course, all Jews are prophets, just as all Americans are created equal.) It is above all this running tension between the real and the ideal that creates a potentially explosive situation in Israel between Jew and Jew.



Yet it is the conflict between Jew and Arab which continues to incubate most tragically today more than ever, and here too the American has not been shaped by his experience to take a sanguine view. Along with 2.7 million other Jews he now finds himself living in a country which has a population of 1.4 million Arabs within its present borders, as opposed to 2.4 million Jews and .3 million Arabs before the Six-Day War. Even in the unlikely eventuality that nearly all the million Arabs now living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip should be returned tomorrow to some form of Arab rule, Israel would remain with a Jewish-Arab ratio of no more than 5 to 1—half that, the American uneasily notes, of whites to blacks in the United States. What will happen, however (and it may be that the die has already been cast, less as a result of any deliberate decision on anyone’s part than of an inexorable drift of events which possibly no Israeli government could have reversed even had it sought to), if all the currently occupied portion of Palestine should remain permanently under Israeli control? How can a Palestinian Arab population half as large as the Jewish possibly be accommodated within Israel’s political life without tearing the country apart? Yet the implications of not accommodating it are in the long run more ominous still. Though he would be the last to deny the remarkable success of Israel’s military government in suppressing guerrilla resistance in the occupied territories, particularly the West Bank, while at the same time minimizing the indignities of an unwelcome occupation and creating an unprecedented economic boom among the population into the bargain, the complacent assumption of even sophisticated Israelis that if the Arabs will not go away they will at least behave themselves indefinitely if treated with a firm but benevolent hand cannot help but remind the American of similarly patronizing attitudes that were once prevalent in his native land. No, Israelis are not whites nor Arabs blacks, but if the recent history of America has taught him anything, it is the treachery of the ground that lies between a majority that is unconscious of being oppressive and a minority that is conscious of being oppressed. Whatever the future of Arab-Jewish relations in whatever part of Palestine the two peoples are henceforward fated to share, the American immigrant is less likely than the average Israeli to imagine they can be smooth.

It has been argued by some—most notably by the proponents of outright Israeli annexation of the territories—that Jewish immigration to Israel in the years to come will sufficiently offset the size of the Arab population now under Israeli rule to allow the latter to be peacefully absorbed into Israeli life without seriously endangering the Jewish character of the state. This argument is as disingenuous statistically as it is politically, but the fact remains that regardless of the solutions that are or are not reached between Palestinian Jews and Arabs in the years to come, the two peoples are embarked on a demographic race whose proportions are staggering. To an American who has witnessed in recent years his own country’s painful weaning from an almost religious commitment to the virtues of unlimited growth, and who has lived to see the curve of human frustrations produced by the latter shoot up at a far faster rate than the curve of human satisfactions, it comes as something of a shock to hear Israeli leaders speak calmly of doubling the country’s population between now and the end of the century—and yet a rudimentary glance at the statistics is enough to convince him that this is if anything a conservative estimate.4 Whatever the social and political implications of five to six million Jews living side by side with one to three million Arabs in the year 2000 may be, the economic and environmental ones seem frightening. Where will all these people be put? What kind of economic infrastructure will be necessary to support them at some kind of reasonable level and at what price to an urban and rural environment that is already showing distressing signs of blight? What does this mean in terms of the quality of life that Jews and Arabs together can look forward to in ten, twenty, or thirty years? The answers of course do not exist, least of all, it would seem, in the minds of Israeli planners, but the questions, to say the least, are disturbing.

If our American finds them so, he finds it disturbing too that most Israelis seem as yet undisturbed, though it is easy enough to understand how the sheer struggle for survival has driven more long-term calculations from their minds. Not that the conflict with the Arabs has resulted in any appreciable suppression of political or intellectual dissent, but rather that like the cold war in the 50’s in the United States, only far more so, it has led to an overconcentration of national energies and to a hesitancy to speak out on issues that could prove nationally divisive. It has of course become commonplace to remark that once there is peace with the Arabs Israel will explode from within, and it is certainly true that the military situation has too often been used as a carpet under which a growing number of critical problems have been carelessly swept. True, the danger of peace is remote . . . except that the carpet has reached the bulging point in any case. Overextended as the country already is, it will somehow have to cope with all the practical problems of peace in a state of at least semi-war for an indefinite time to come.



Our American immigrant need not be clairvoyant therefore—though he would not be an American if he did not sometimes feel that he was—to realize that in settling in Israel he has hardly gotten away from it all. In fact, if there is one luxury in Israel that even affluence cannot buy, it is being able to get away from any of it for very long: the country is simply too small, the problems too great, the demands on the individual too relentless, the possibilities for anonymity too rare. (An Israeli joke, which I am assured is of vintage age, though I heard it for the first time on the morning of writing these lines: An Egyptian spy comes to Israel on a secret mission with instructions to contact Goldberg. Upon reaching the address he has been given, however, he is dismayed to discover that there are in fact two Goldbergs listed on the directory downstairs. What is he to do now? Throwing caution to the winds, he knocks on the door of the first Goldberg and whispers the codeword. The Jew in the doorway looks puzzled, but only for a moment. “Ah,” he says, brightening, “you must be looking for Goldberg the spy! He lives up above, on the third floor.”) In America our American has always been conscious of, has perhaps even exercised, the option of indifference, latterly known as dropping out, whether into the vastness of American space, the neighborless tower on the thirty-second floor, or those twenty acres in Vermont, or simply into the inviolability of his own detachment, be it that of the ironically philosophical eye or of the more supine spectator sport practiced nightly by millions of his fellow countrymen who have learned to watch Watts and Vietnam go up in flames on the screens of their television sets with all the insouciance of a Nero.

In Israel, however, he soon discovers—if he did not, that is, know it before coming, if it was not, in fact, his reason for coming—that no matter how tall the building he lives in there will always be another neighbor named Goldberg, and that the faces on the television, now that it unfortunately exists . . . well, they too belong to Jews. So indeed does everyone’s. Unless of course he is Arab, which is to say, a victim of Jews perhaps, or an enemy of Jews, but still, like the elephant, like everything else in this country of many sorrows and few amenities, an essentially Jewish problem.

In the end one can like that fact or leave it, feel limited or liberated by it, and for every case of an American who has come to Israel expecting to feel the one way only to wind up feeling the other, it is possible to cite a case in reverse. What it ultimately boils down to is a matter of chemical reaction, and though we know enough to class them with the volatile substances, we still do not know very much about the chemistry of the Jews. Are some born with a valence for like and some with a valence for unlike, are some suddenly ionized in mid-course so that they change from one to the other? We do not know, nor, when the sociologists have finished scoring the last questionnaire and tabulating the last punch card, are we likely to know much more. In the final analysis, if Israel has any message for all of us, it may be nothing more than that although we are living in a world where we are more and more becoming less and less free to choose our own problems—where more and more of the problems, in fact, are depressingly the same all over—we can still have some say in deciding whom to share those problems with. For the American Jew in Israel who, sometimes without knowing it yet himself, is there to stay, there eventually comes a time when in talking to an Israeli, in English or in Hebrew, a day or month or year after his arrival, he first uses the pronoun “we.” It is not a dramatic occasion, but if he bothered to notice it at all he will probably tell you that the feeling was basically good. Be it ever so complicated, there is still, for some of us at least, no place like home.




1 Thus, whereas less than one-sixth of 1 per cent of the Jewish population of the United States emigrated to Israel in 1971, the corresponding figure for the Jewish populations of France and Great Britain was in the neighborhood of one-half of 1 per cent.

2 Official Israeli statistics on re-emigration by country of origin do not exist, but whereas the proportion of American-Jewish immigrants who returned to the United States in the period preceding the Six-Day War is generally put in the vicinity of two-thirds, an educated guess might be that about the same figure is currently choosing to remain.

3 Although Israeli law provides that any Jew entering the country as an immigrant is automatically entitled to Israeli citizenship, many immigrants today and nearly all Americans come on a three-year “trial period,” during which their official status is that of “temporary resident—potential immigrant.” If they choose to remain at the end of this period they become full “immigrants” with the rights and obligations of Israeli citizens. The obligations include, for men, service in the army, which generally means a brief basic training followed by an annual call-up to the reserves. The fact that Americans now can and do serve in the army—the single institution in Israel that serves as a common mortar among Israelis from all walks of life—without fear of losing their U.S. citizenship has removed a pyschological burden that often weighed on them greatly in the past.

4 One can project Israeli population figures for the year 2000 on the basis of a number of assumptions. If one assumes, for instance, that Israel will eventually return the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Arab rule, the territory remaining—pre-1967 Israel plus the former Jordanian sector of Jerusalem—has a present population of close to 2.7 million Jews and .4 million Arabs. If the Arab population continues to increase at its current rate of nearly 4 per cent a year, which is among the highest in the world, it will reach 1 million by the year 2000, while should the Jewish population continue to grow at its current rate of about 100,000 a year—slightly more than half of which is due to immigration and slightly less than half to natural increase—it will top 5 million by the same year. Barring relatively unpredictable factors, however, two other possibilities need to be taken into account. One is that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will remain part of Israel, whose total Arab population by the year 2000 will then approach 3 million. The other is that a mass exodus to Israel of Jews from the Soviet Union and/or other countries (Argentina, South Africa, etc.) of high Jewish concentrations and of sociopolitical stability may swell the immigrant population by even more. It is possible, in other words, that by the end of the century there will be some 9 million people living in the former Mandatory territory of Palestine under Israeli rule—an increase of about 225 per cent from the present and of nearly 500 per cent from 1948!

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

Pin It on Pinterest