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Jewish Journal

Missing America

Israel: The People


by David Margolis

January 4, 1998 | 7:00 pm

Here in Israel,immigrants from the States love to reminisce about the Old Country,where, for example, workmen care about doing a good job and clerksare helpful. From here, even the DMV looks good, compared to Israel'sbaroque bureaucracy: To learn to drive in Israel, you are required totake a series of expensive lessons. Why? Because it is against thelaw to practice driving privately, even with a licensed driver in thenext seat. And then the paperwork necessary for the license requiresyou to go to two or three different offices in different parts of thecity.

And why, oh why, entreat the Americans, did weever leave a country full of discount stores to move to one withbadly made goods at high prices, a 17 percent sales tax, a separateannual tax on your television, and fees for the "free" publiceducation of your children? It was bad enough that in America theproverbial 10-cent cup of coffee had risen to a dollar. But inIsrael, it goes, inexplicably, for $2 to $3 in most restaurants (andno refills).

Yes, there are lots of things to miss about theStates. But, for myself, when I think about what I miss as a newcitizen of Israel, it turns out to be, oddly enough, Israel itself --an Israel that may soon (or already) no longer exist.

I had a little taste of it during my first year inthe Jewish state, when I lived in Arad, a small city in the Negev.Israel's showplace "development town," Arad was planned rather thanimprovised, and its mercaz , or town center, operated like the zocalo in a Mexican town: It wasthe "village square," where people looked for each other, met eachother, shopped in various stores and passed the time over coffee inoutdoor cafes. The town's official celebration of IsraeliIndependence Day took place in the mercaz. And, on ordinary summernights, people gathered there for group dancing to recorded music;adults, teens and young children all participated. The musicconsisted of traditional Israeli songs and both Israeli and Americanpop music (two different species), and the townspeople had awholesome good time together.

During that year, construction began on a shoppingmall about two blocks from the mercaz. A year or so later, the kenyon (from theHebrew root for "acquire") was finished. It has a Burger King, a newsupermarket, a big pharmacy that is part of a giant Israeli chain.The Steimatsky's bookstore moved from the mercaz to the mall; so didthe natural foods store and a few other shops.

As shopping malls go, Arad's is pretty nice --roomy, airy and, by comparison with malls in larger cities,pleasantly uncrowded.

Meanwhile the mercaz, though many stores and cafesremain, seems to be suffering a slow death. Pedestrian traffic thereis noticeably reduced. The teenagers are all at the mall, segregatedby age, hanging out. Group dancing on summer nights? It no longerhappens.

So it seems as if public Arad has split into twodifferent towns. One is located in the "old Israel." It is outdoorsand communal, slow, family-like, spontaneous and disorganized. Itmixes age groups and ethnicities; creating a sense of community isone reason for its existence, a fuller community is one of itsgoals.

I think I caught the tail end of it that firstyear. The "new Israel" is more like the new mall -- indoors,air-conditioned and brightly lit. It runs on the profit motive, phonychic, an environment for shopping, with snacks by Pizza Hut orMcDonald's. Acquire till you expire.

No wonder that even as I recall all the advantagesof life in America, I don't really miss America that much. Already(to paraphrase Wordsworth), America is too much with us.

As the Old Israel disappears, emerging in itsplace is a new high-tech Israel, Israel on the make. The oldcollective identity is being eroded, and the relaxed traditions ofthe Levant are falling away. A growing percentage of Israeli youthnow reject army service and already, in Jerusalem, most businesses nolonger close for the afternoon siesta hours: It's business as usual,early and late, getting and spending.

Meanwhile, the country is becoming noticeably morecrowded and traffic gets worse every day. Currently, close to 9million people live between the River Jordan and the Mediterraneancoastline, and demographers project that the population will doublein the next 40 years, to make Israel the world's most denselypopulated industrialized country.

As the economy switches from the old and ofteninefficient socialist model to the new free-market capitalism, someof those people are going to get rich -- and a lot of people who lackthe skills to get along in a service-oriented, high-tech environmentare going to get poor. Being poor when everybody is poor is onething; standing outside the bakery and watching others eat cake issomething else. One already hears the creaking as the social classesstart to drift apart.

Israel is still a great place to live. It'swonderful to celebrate Jewish holidays as the whole country turns tothe celebration. The streets are still safe, it's a fine place toraise children and people care about what happens and about eachother a lot more than is considered proper in urban America.Everything that happens affects Jewish life and the Jewish future.Nonetheless, the Israel of 50 years hence is likely to be"prosperous," yet, like the United States, crowded, polluted, rivenby social problems bred by poverty, and unclear about its collectiveidentity.

The Americanization of Israel is something thatmakes Israel more inviting to Western immigrants. "Quality of life"is improving here, especially for people with money, and service isgetting better. It once took years to get a telephone installed.Today the telecommunications system has been overhauled to meet therequirements of the Information Age, cable TV brings the whole worldinto your living room, and every household seems to own a washer,dryer, microwave and car -- just like in America.

But, meanwhile, something else is slipping away. Ikeep hearing Joni Mitchell in my inner ear: "They paved paradise andput up a parking lot." If it happened in America, why wouldn't ithappen here?


David Margolis writes fromJerusalem.

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