December 14, 2000
Safe and Sound
Amerika, du hast es besser ... - J.W. von Goethe, 1827
It was a perky El Al stewardess named Meital who first informed me, a few hours after the polls had closed, that George Bush had won the election. We were 30,000 feet over Halifax, more or less, and hundreds of Jews, crammed into economy seats like immigrants in steerage, were on their way from the war-torn Jewish state to the Goldeneh Medinah, some of us en route to the GA in Chicago.
A bagel and lox and cup of coffee later, the captain announced officially that we were beginning our approach into New York's JFK and that America had a new President, George W. Bush. Gasps and moans were audible throughout the cabin.
During the cab ride into Manhattan, my wife and I were riveted to the all-news radio, which was reporting that Meital and the pilot had spoken too soon, that Gore had conceded and then recanted, that the TV soothsayers had retracted their sooths, that the election hinged on a handful of Florida votes, that the ballots in Palm Beach were defective, that lawyers were readying for battle. Somebody's Bubbie votes for Buchanan, I said to my wife, and the mightiest nation in the world teeters on the brink of Constitutional crisis. And they say Israel is a crazy country.
Yes, well. Goethe was right, even in these maddening times, when he declared (in a posthumously published poem) that America had it better. Five weeks and countless lawsuits later, Bush and his buddies have managed to run out the clock with the kind assistance of a deeply divided Supreme Court. Yet far more disturbing from where I sit, there's still no end in sight to the bloody intifada that began just before Rosh Hashanah.
The other night the air over our house was full of the clack-clack-clack of helicopter blades, and suddenly - boom! My wife and I looked up from the books we were reading. Boom! Another ominous explosion. I turned on the radio. Two Israeli missiles, said the news announcer, had just been fired by our helicopters at a building outside Bethlehem that housed Palestinian guerrillas who had attacked Rachel's Tomb.
How would it feel, I wondered, to live in Bethlehem and hear those explosions, wondering if the next missile was pointed your way? To live at the edge of Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, which is under nightly fire from Palestinian gunmen? As for us, we live several miles away. Safe and sound, for now. When Goethe wrote that Americans were free of the ruined castles of Europe, he implied that they were not imprisoned by a cycle of ancient conflicts. In Goethe's lifetime, the Age of Revolution, fierce battles were waged on American soil. But not since the War of 1812 have Americans had to fight a foreign foe at home. Small wonder that Americans, as George Washington noted, have long nurtured a natural allergy to foreign entanglements. Small wonder that even as tribal and religious animosities raged in Israel and around the globe, the American presidential campaign might as well have transpired on Neptune for all that the contenders addressed foreign affairs. Happy is the land whose elections hinge on Social Security and the candidates' smiles.
Ehud Barak, besieged from within and without, resigned the other day, asking a weary Israeli public to re-elect him and endorse his quest for peace - whereupon Bibi Netanyahu, riding high in opinion polls, promptly stepped off a plane from New York and proclaimed his willingness to be the next prime minister. Political turmoil reigns, uncertainty assumes downright American proportions, yet one thing's for sure: When Israelis go to the polls in a couple of months, far more than 51 percent of the eligible voters, the percentage that showed up to vote in America, will take the trouble to cast their ballots. For Israelis, the most incomprehensible aspect of American politics - exceeding even the Florida legislature and the dimpled chad - is the fact that half the American people are too lazy or apathetic to get off their duffs and vote.
The reason, I think, goes beyond the vanilla Tweedledee-Tweedledumness that many Americans both rightly and wrongly ascribe to Republican and Democratic candidates, especially this time around. It also goes beyond the obvious fact that in Israel, life-and-death issues are at stake. Among the many big differences between Israel and America, there is also this: For Israelis, citizenship involves serious obligation, and for Americans, by comparison, it does not.
Americans are not required to serve in the army or perform any other kind of national service. For all their grousing about high taxes, Americans have a far lighter burden than Israelis do. It would seem, in short, that all too many Americans are quick to stand up for their rights but have forgotten what they learned in school about their one fundamental civic responsibility: to get out and vote.
Will the surreal cliffhanger of the year 2000 finally persuade American abstainers that democracy is a precious gift and every vote counts? Maybe, but then again maybe not; 2004 is a long way off, and it is a measure of America's great good fortune that at the end of the day, it may not matter. Certainly not the way it matters in Israel.