July 19, 2006
Abnormal Normality Rules
My concerned daughter in Los Angeles called me in Israel last weekend, shortly before my trip back home after a vacation there. I told her, truthfully, that I had just enjoyed the most idyllic and peaceful weeks of my long life.
Come again? Didn't I know that there was a war on, with missiles falling on Haifa and near the Gaza Strip and that experts were predicting a regional conflict, she asked.
Had I been holed up in a Dead Sea cave looking for missing scrolls? Well, not really. What I was experiencing, as I have many times before, was a confirmation of what I have modestly dubbed Tugend's Law: The perception of a crisis intensifies in direct proportion to the distance from its actual occurrence.
That's not because the sensation-hungry media invents or even exaggerates the facts on the ground. Rather, what readers and listeners in distant lands lack are the geographical and emotional frameworks to place the facts into their proper context.
A story from the early 1960s illustrates the point. A family had two branches, one living in Tel Aviv, the other in the northern corner of sprawling Los Angeles County.
"Stay if you must..."
When news of a border incident with Egypt got a prominent play in the U.S. press, the Californians cabled their Tel Aviv relatives, "Stay if you must but send the children here for safety."
A year later, when the Watts Riots exploded in Los Angeles, about 50 miles from where the American family lived, they received a wire from their panicked Israeli relatives, who urged, "Stay if you must, but send the children here for safety."
One more story. After the War of Independence ended in 1949, I decided to work a couple of months in a left-wing kibbutz before returning to the United States. One day, I fell into conversation with a highly intelligent Israeli kibbutznik, who assured me that he would never visit the United States. When I asked why, he matter-of-factly informed me that it was far too risky to visit a country where -- as everybody knew -- gangsters were continually gunning down innocent people in the streets and lynched Negroes were hanging from every other lamppost.
OK, here's a short report on my Israel stay. It started shortly after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier near the Gaza Strip triggered the fighting and ended a few days after Israeli planes pounded targets in Lebanon and missiles fell on Haifa and northern Israeli towns.
My Jerusalem-born wife, Rachel, and I came mainly for a long-planned family reunion of her extended mishpachah, accompanied by three of our grandchildren, ages 1 to 6, and their parents.
Rachel's family, the Spitzers, is extraordinarily fecund, Baruch HaShem, and at the grand reunion at the Living Museum Ein Yael, adjoining the Jerusalem zoo, we were welcomed by 85 sabra relatives, spanning three generations and all political opinions.
We had had long dinners and conversations with many of them, as well as old friends, during the preceding week, complemented by interviews with political scientists and journalists, so we had a built-in sample of the Israeli citizenry. Admittedly, they were well-established middle-class types, and we would probably have drawn a wider spectrum of views had we talked to new immigrants or struggling Israelis.
The warmth and openness of the vast Spitzer clan made our trip but so did our decision to go for broke this time and take up residence at the Sheraton Moriah in Tel Aviv. This hotel offers some major amenities. One is a bracing saltwater swimming pool. Another is the nearby Panorama restaurant, with generous portions of Israeli specialties.
"We felt that we were as close to heaven as we were likely to get..."
Best of all, we scored rooms with balconies, directly facing the Mediterranean and its beaches, bustling with swimmers, joggers, bicyclists, dancers, lovers, indefatigable matkot (paddle ball) players and patrons who jammed restaurants well past midnight. Watching all that under a glorious Mediterranean sunset, we felt that we were as close to heaven as we were likely to get, despite warnings of a stealth invasion -- by jellyfish.
What surprised us was that the soldier's kidnapping near Gaza and the Israeli retaliation did not break the mood or stir up our Israeli relatives and friends. Rather, they appeared surprised by our questions and concerns about "another incident down at the border."
The disconnect between the global headlines and the bland reaction -- if any -- among the Israelis is rooted into two major attitudes we were told over and over again.
One is a preoccupation with personal and family concerns, the other the need for a certain emotional distance in a society constantly beset by political and military crises.
Maya Bar-Tov, the bright and attractive daughter of a cousin and a university student in geophysics, reflected the opinion of other young Israelis when she said, "We live our own lives. We may talk a little about politics once in a while, but it gets boring and we turn to something else."
The sense of national familyhood still exists at some level, but in a weaker form than at the country's creation, when Israel had one-tenth its current population.
A grandson of my wife's sister put it bluntly. "I live in an apartment house where my neighbor may be a Russian, Ethiopian, Orthodox or Iranian. What do I have in common with them?"
Accept "abnormal normality -- or go crazy"
A sense of emotional remoteness from headline reports is Israel's "abnormal normality -- otherwise you go crazy," said Uri Dromi, a retired air force colonel, former emissary to Los Angeles and now a director of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.
In a recent international poll measuring the happiness quotient of citizens in various countries, Israel ranked near the very top, certainly a surprise for a nation and peoplehood famed for their eloquent complainers.
Yet, nearly every relative and friend I met agreed with the poll results. They cited good economic conditions, close ties to family and comrades and a rock-bottom faith that the nation would survive.
As for the likelihood of peace, real peace, a friend guessed it would take several generations. Another sneered at such wild optimism. "At least another 200 years," she said.