June 20, 2002
Stoned in Jerusalem
I've figured out what unites all Jews. Or at least all Israeli Jews.
It's not what you think: that we are united because of a common threat to our survival. That certainly concentrates the mind and creates an unusual bond, however fleeting. But after spending a week in the Holy Land on the Sinai Temple Solidarity Mission, I think I've uncovered what truly bonds all Israelis, whether they know it or not.
And I mean all Israelis: the left-wing intellectual, the Dimona bus driver, the right-wing settler, the Yemenite landscaper, the software entrepreneur, the Haredi Yeshiva student, the university professor, the grocery stand owner, the journalist, the Cabinet minister, you name it. They might disagree on everything, but there's one thing they all share: They're addicted to their country. The world may be collapsing around them, they may be at each other's throats, but trust me, they're all hooked.
It's a quiet, almost surreal attachment to the homeland. It's not the rah-rah type of civic boosterism that we are used to seeing here. It's rarely spoken or articulated, and you can see it best in what you don't see.
You see the intense frustration and fear of terror, but you don't see the exasperation of "I gotta get out of here." You hear the cries of "I can't stand this person or this group," but you don't hear the cry of "I can't stand this place."
You see shrugs of resignation, sadness perhaps, but not desperation. I was hard-pressed to find in Israel the emotion that makes one want to pack up and bolt. I'm angry, I'm hurt, I'm broke, but abandon this place? Are you kidding me?
It's like a mad love affair that never goes away. You crave the presence of your lover. They drive you nuts, they're always late, they upset your mother, but your body aches when you're not with them. There's turmoil all around, but when you're together, you're in this little sanctuary of serenity, that place where your heart knows it belongs.
Love buys you lots of forgiveness, and mad love buys you even more. Israel inspires mad love. There's too much heat, too much fear, too much chaos, but it doesn't matter. I'm madly in love, and I forgive. You like someone for their strengths, but you love them for their weaknesses.
Where does this mad love come from? Even that doesn't ultimately matter (who cares why I'm in love?). And in trying to intellectually dissect a visceral love, you run the risk of killing the mystique. Having said that, let me give it a shot.
It's clear that part of the love comes from the romantic pull of the Zionist experience itself: the biblical nostalgia of returning home after 2,000 years, the pride of accomplishment against all odds, the struggle of "us against the world," the drama of feeling needed in times of trouble, and for many, the sense that God is really on our side, even if it doesn't always show.
But the love also comes from the little stuff that sneaks in under our radar. Like the Mizrahi music that plays like the country's soundtrack on taxi radios; the El Al flight attendants who act like they're mishpacha; the five little salads that show up immediately at your restaurant table, or the Jewish trauma surgeon who tells you he treats Palestinian victims like any other.
There are the billboards that promote condominiums, milk, the Messiah and hot dogs, and you'd never know there's a war going on. There's the lonesome Arab grocer whose radio is blasting Elton John's "Rocket Man" in the Old Jewish Quarter on Shabbat afternoon, and the room service waiter who brings your order while arguing with his girlfriend on his cell phone.
And the craziness abounds. There I was in the Knesset cafeteria at lunchtime, behind Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Knesset member and former aide to Yasser Arafat who has been accused of making treasonous statements against Israel. And there he was, ordering schnitzel and laughing it up in Hebrew with a kippah-wearing, right-wing Knesset member from Shas! And there he was again, schmoozing and holding court with Israeli Knesset members as he watched the World Cup! What kind of a country creates scenes like these? Are even the accused traitors in love with our homeland?
A rabbi friend once said that you don't give to someone because you love them, you love them because you give to them. And brother, have Jews given to Israel, especially those who live there. They have given their lives, their livelihoods, their bodies and their hearts to the motherland, and now, their souls are bonded in eternal love with her. It's an addiction they might not fully comprehend, which is precisely why it's an addiction in the first place.
We the visitors get to taste this aphrodisiac, and we are mesmerized. It's not something we're used to feeling. We like to be in control, and we don't like to surrender. But the power of Israel and the source of her strength is that she makes us all surrender.
Jews will scream at each other until the end of time, and they will never surrender to each other, but they will all surrender to Israel. That's because Israel is not a country, it's a drug. And I'm hopelessly hooked.