Friday, June 26, 2015

Eighteen Years an Ex-Pat: What You See From Here, You Can't See From There


When I left New York City on June 23, 1997 for Israel, the World Trade Center dominated lower Manhattan's skyline.  I had not yet gotten around to visiting the south tower's observation deck.

Rudy Giuliani was mayor, George Pataki was New York's governor, and Bill Clinton was in the White House. I was not enamored with any of them.

The Long War had begun, but most Americans didn't know it. The 1995 bombing by right-wing fanatics of the Oklahoma City Federal Building which left 168 Americans dead had largely displaced memories of the comparatively less lethal 1993 truck-bombing of the WTC by Islamist terrorists.

Only later would it become possible to  connect the 1990 assassination in New York City of Jewish militant Meir Kahane with the perpetrators of both the first and the September 11, 2001 attacks.  

When I left, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich sat astride Capitol Hill. Monica Lewinsky was unknown. By December 1998, I watched from Israel as a partisan House moved to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to his sexual peccadilloes. Gingrich was already gone, owing to the GOP's poor showing in the November midterm elections.

I was already in Israel a full year when the intelligence community made tracking a Yemeni-born Saudi named Osama bin Laden its top priority. It had connected him to the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Later, I watched from afar as Texas governor George W. Bush was inaugurated president in January 2001. America seemed exponentially more polarized than it had been when George H. W. Bush vacated the White House in 1993 for Clinton.

Being a news junky I worried about how I would keep track of all that was going on in my Old Country. Copies of the International Herald Tribune arrived in Tel Aviv seldom less than two days old. Fortunately, there was the BBC World Service for breaking news.

Internet outlets were in their infancy; modems were of the dial-up variety. Yahoo was around. Google only came into existence in 1998. There was no social media. Many of my friends back in New York had no home email.

The Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu was in his first term when I moved to Israel. He would be ousted by Ehud Barak's Labor Party in 1999. I landed in a country that was still riven by Yitzhak Rabin's assassination two years earlier at the hands of Yigal Amir. The dovish camp had appropriated what was a national tragedy to push an accommodationist agenda in a peace process that Rabin himself probably wouldn't have  embraced.

Hamas, founded in 1987, the violent offshoot of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, slaughtered its way onto the front pages after the 1993 Oslo Accords that Rabin signed with Yasser Arafat. 



The PLO leadership had been practically airlifted from Tunisia to the West Bank where Israel helped establish the Palestinian Authority. Hamas denounced Arafat for going wobbly on Israel. The PLO chief insisted that his embrace of negotiations was an astute tactic – that his strategy remained the destruction of Israel, albeit, in stages.

Meantime, I was trying to acclimate – learning modern Hebrew, deciding where to live, and growing anxious about work. Israel's cost of living was nearly New York-like, but the salaries, decidedly, weren't.

I'd assumed that Israelis shared the bourgeois values of American Jews – only that they spoke Hebrew.

I'd been willfully ignorant of the chasm between secular and Orthodox Israelis. In New York, I barley paid attention to the political and theological permutations within Israel's body politic. At the end of the day, weren't Israelis all in the same boat? Soon I discovered that secular Israelis were often illiterate about Jewish civilization, and ultra-Orthodox Israelis were mired in an insularity that was incompatible with civic duty in the 21st century.

Israelis generally detested the established Orthodox "church" yet the synagogue they didn't attend was Orthodox. Progressive streams like Reform and Conservative struck them as inauthentic.

Over the past 18 years, I found myself abandoning ideological and theological certainties. I arrived opposing a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. I changed my mind during the second intifada when Ariel Sharon seemed to embrace the idea. I backed the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. Nowadays, I think that a pullback to any approximation of the 1949 Armistice Lines, to make space for a Palestinian state, would be wildly reckless.

"When the facts change, I change my mind," said John Maynard Keynes. Me too.

There are things I can see about Israel's predicament that its American friends-cum-detractors can't from 6,000 miles away. By the same token, I have a perspective on American politics that those caught up in its ruthless 24/7 views-cycle may be missing.

One thing hasn't changed. The fate of my birth country and that of my ancestral homeland remain coupled. 




 



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