Israel, the Unlivable!
There is a difference between having acute awareness of Israel’s many problems and saying that this place is unlivable, as I have heard a number of people moan. Those who make such a claim may have an image in their minds of what Israel is supposed to be like and the reality of her just does not match up, to put it mildly. For some reason, they feel the need to run Israel down on the social media over and over again, sometimes ad nauseam.
I wonder if, among the Jews who came at the turn of the century, there were those who also did not anticipate the reality of the land that greeted them when their feet landed upon her soil. How many went back from whence they came, or moved on, instead, to the “golden medina” (the USA), and did not join the early kibbutznikim who drained the swamps and helped rid the land of malaria or those with more urban aspirations who helped establish new towns in sandy dunes?
Going back is not necessarily restricted to starry eyed olim (new immigrants) to our indigenous land. For example, my mother told me a story about one of my great-grandmothers who came with the children from Poland to join her husband in Toronto several years after he had left the old country; finally he had established himself, earning enough to buy a house and support his family. But she was horrified by the apikoros (heretical) land she found in Canada and got on the boat and went back to Poland. She did return to her family later, however, and lucky that she did. One aunt seems to remember something about this. I wonder who would have had money for such extraneous return trips, so perhaps my mother just grew up with a grandmother who bitched about life in Canada, complaining that she wished she could return to Poland.
Whether myth or truth, the story shows that being so disenchanted with the land you once thought would bring you a better life is not restricted to Israeli olim.
I wonder what these scornful relative newcomers would have thought of the Israel I found had they come here when I did, over 40 years ago. Perhaps they would have been enchanted with the land as it was primitive in almost every measure of the word and there was no way one could compare it to the modern first-world countries in North American and Europe in which they were born and raised: there was no air-conditioning, only rotary fans that did little to ease the heat and humidity of the long summer months, you had to wait years to get a phone installed in your apartment, interurban roads had two lanes only and many twisted around hills, sometimes narrowing to a single lane, buses were over crowded with sweating people standing in the aisles and the drivers played dangerous games of chicken, passing each other on these insufficient roads, narrowly missing the bus passing another vehicle in the oncoming lane, there was only one television station and it was in black and white, long after colour was available where they came from. Of course, there were no lines at bus stops and you learned to use your elbows to board, hopefully quickly enough to get a seat.
And should I tell you what it was like to go to a government office? There were no numbers to take to know your place in line. You walked into a crowded hall and shouted out: who is last? Someone would raise his or her hand and that was your place. You waited for a seat to become available and that could take a long time. In any case, it was better to position yourself next to a fan. There were fans in the corners of the hall, or perhaps along a wall, and the windows were open to try to capture a bit of humidity laden breeze. Finally, you counted only two people ahead of you and suddenly the windows of the two or three clerks were shuttered closed as it was coffee break or lunchtime or even the end of the day. There was no consideration for those who were still waiting because the clerks suffered the same exhaustion from the heat as the rest of us, and from being yelled at by disgruntled members of the public who were not satisfied with the answers they got. When you happened to be lucky enough to get to a clerk, you may be told that you have to bring another document or get something signed by another government office before you could be properly served. It was a nightmare.
But at the same time, I felt privileged to be in this primitive place. Just living here felt like positive activism on behalf of the Jewish people, if that makes sense to you, dear reader. I relished the fact that Israel bore no resemblance to the Canada I had left and that Israelis were so different from the Canadians I had grown up with and felt no sense of belonging to. Not only that, the sense of community was so high that you could start a conversation with anyone anywhere and feel a common ground regardless of where that other person was born.
Everything went quiet between 2 and 4 pm, and at 4, all the residents of the apartment block with children sat together next to the building with coffee and cake as the kids played all around, all ages playing together. You struck up conversations with those next to you in line at the public telephone on the street where you lived and not only in order to ease the frustration of the wait. And I wonder if a bank clerk in Canada would have gone out of her way to save my financial situation like Miriam did the first time I met her, as I describe here.
Perhaps what is difficult for some to get their heads around is the contradictory nature of contemporary Israel. She currently has a veneer of modernity: mirror-glassed downtown buildings, luxury high rises, fancy malls and multi-cinema complexes, a highly technologically advanced society. But just scratch the surface and you find live remnants of the coarse Israeli lacking the social graces and civility common to North America and Western Europe. You find a majority of Israelis that remain “tribal” and are not necessarily enamoured of making the changes the dissatisfied olim feel necessary in order to make this place “livable”.
I am reminded of Kennedy’s famous line: Ask not . . . Can you finish it, those of you who are so disappointed that Israel seems to be such a backward primitive place deserving your scorn rather than your shoulder to the wheel? Why do you whine rather than rejoice in the opportunity you have to take part in moving the evolution of this land on to its next stage of development? And if this place is not to your liking, if this is not how you see yourself living out your life and an environment in which to raise your children, that is your right and I hope that you find what you are looking for anywhere else in the world.
Me? I have adopted Kennedy’s quote:
Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.