What you see from here, you can’t see from there

November 15, 2010 by

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I woke up after my long-haul flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv feeling blurred and jaded. It might have been the paradigm shift of suddenly finding myself back in Israel; the shock of realizing that my house and family are now based in America; or just the prescription strength sleeping tablets my father-in-law had given me. I think it is a sign of the quality of our relationship that I am prepared to swallow drugs he offers me, without even looking at the box.

And I was regretting this as I climbed into the driving seat of the rented car, set Galatz and 88FM as my presets, and launched onto Route 1. And suddenly I got my perspective back: there was a student demonstration against over-funding for Haredi yeshiva students; a general strike on the cards; and Ofer Eini (head of the Histadrut Labor Union) called Ehud Barak an Ahabal (fool in Arabic). Israel in HD. Doesn’t get better than that. And it made me remember the wonderful Hebrew adage – What you see from here you can’t see from there. It’s a famous excuse from Israeli politicians when they don’t fulfill election promises, yet there is a lot of truth to it.

On this trip to Israel the shoe has been on the other foot and I noticed how even sophisticated analysis of the US lacks the all important nuances which provide the backdrop. US coverage in Israel seems to be at a peak at the moment. The American elections of Nov. 2nd have been reported so widely that right-wing activist Moshe Feiglin accused secular Israel of treating America as a divine entity. And many Israelis have been waiting for these elections as expectantly as Americans. There are 2 main schools of thought, the first (which I may be so bold as to suggest is lead by our fearless Prime Minister) feels that a Republican-led congress will weaken Obama’s administration and ultimately take the heat off Israel – Obama’s perceived animosity towards Israel will be blunted. The second school of thought, propagated by Alon Pinkus (the former Israeli consul in New York) and other analysts, is the exact opposite. They suggest that with Obama’s ability to impact on domestic affairs in decline, his attention will be turned towards the international arena, and in particular the Middle East.

There has been a good deal of insightful analysis of the state of American politics, with questions as to Obama’s sincerity in his humble-pie defeat speech, and the economic-centric nature of the American voter. But other areas have been neglected – especially the grassroots changes within the Republican Party and the repercussions of evolving streams of political thought in America. I have also found a growing misconception that support for Israel in America follows party lines, with Republicans presented as Israel saviors and Democrats rabid critics.

Just as music happens in between the notes, understanding where a society is “at” takes more than a collection of news reports. A good example of this is a stunning book I have started reading authored by the food correspondent for the local Jerusalem Time Out-esque magazine Kol HaIr – All the city. In Ochel BaAmida – Eating standing up, Asaf Gavron chronicles his experiences with Jerusalem fast food establishments in diary-style entries which use political and social intrigues as a technicolor backdrop. His style, more than the content, encapsulates what Israel is all about, the blurring of boundaries, between art and life, people and concepts, and plate and pitta.

On my return to America I made my regular stop at dunkin’ doughnuts and ordered a gingerbread latte, I was engulfed in a sea of Latin American Spanish as I spilled coffee on my copy of the Washington Post. No matter where you are context is king.

This trip to Israel raised many questions for me but it also crystallized several others: We need to start focusing more on the set and less on the action. It is the background which creates the depth and clarity of the picture – we can’t bluescreen Israel.

Anton Goodman is the Israel Engager Shaliach to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

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