March 12, 1998
Last weekend, I was at a gathering of maybe 80people, brought together to listen to a prominent Israeliintellectual who proceeded to dazzle us with his accounts ofpolitical, military and religious life in the Mideast. Actually, itwas more than dazzling. He was informative; he was insightful; he waswitty.
But when I casually reached for pen and notebook-- I was the only journalist in the room -- he laughed and admonishedme. Of course, this was all off the record. And off he soared:
- Telling us about Prime Minister Netanyahu and the religious parties in Israel, and how they, in their separate ways, were forging a government that could not govern. How they, in the process, were ruining Israel.
- Describing the migrant workers from Eastern Europe and Asia, anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 (some legal, others not), whose presence in Israel was generating a great increase in drug use, alcoholism and prostitution. And, in neighborhoods adjacent to the Asian workers, a sudden disappearance of cats.
- Analyzing the peace process, which, despite the stalled state of play, the failure of the Palestinians to make good on many of their promises and the prime minister's dislike of the Oslo agreements, was nevertheless irreversible.
- And, of course, charting the intricate political tactics and maneuvers behind the conversion bill. One point Americans should understand, he added, was that most Israelis, whatever their religious stance, had little comprehension or interest in Diaspora Jewry.
That comment -- that Israelis were uninvolved withJews in America, or elsewhere in the Diaspora -- caught me unaware.On reflection, it was something I knew, something I had experiencedbut had never before verbalized for myself.
It was evident at the media panels and conferencesI attended in Jerusalem, only I chose not to view the comments inthat particular light. And it was an inescapable conclusion to adialogue last month with six Knesset members who were visiting LosAngeles. They had traveled here to observe and to talk with AmericanJews; and, more specifically, to meet with a cross section of ourlocal Jewish community, listening to our concerns about the NeemanCommission and its political aftermath.
At one session I attended, the MKs patientlyexplained that the Commission was really about politics, notreligion, and that we Americans didn't seem to understand the actualdetails of the Conversion Bill -- otherwise, we would not be soexercised over it. Everyone in the room was left with a suddenawareness of just how much distance separated us from the Israelis,despite the fact that we all happened to be Jews.
Here it was again -- the distance, the wide gap --only posed in terms of something that was a cross between innocenceand unconcern, albeit not on the part of the speaker. He had spentseveral years in the United States -- Washington, in particular --and had traveled widely throughout the country. He took the seemingindifference seriously.
Many Americanyouth enjoy visiting Israel, so why not a program to bring Israeliyouth to the United States?
His remedy was imaginative: Start a program thatwould function something like a Jewish Peace Corps, with youngstersfrom all nations, including Israel, joining to work on projectstogether in different parts of the world. In short, apeople-to-people program, but concentrated primarily among teen-agersin the year or two between high school and college (an involuntaryclass bias here).
My thought is less grand, more miniature in scaleand logistics. Just as we are striving today to bring large numbersof American teens to Israel -- for a school term, a summer, a month-- so we might begin to think as well of bringing most Israeliyoungsters to the United States. (There are several small-scaleprograms in place already.) It has the virtue of linking families, ofcasting light on different kinds of Jewish experiences, and ofimplying a certain equality in the authenticity of Jewishidentity.
One caveat: It might lead to a great deal ofmobility, as Israelis -- who have their own contemporary problemswith the nature of Jewish identity in the 21st century -- adopt abinational lifestyle. But, then again, the meaning behind the act ofdeclaring "I am Jewish" is likely to preoccupy many of us, Israelisand Americans alike, as we spring into the new millennium.