What America Means to Israel

Article excerpt

Byline: Fania Oz-Salzberger

A deliciously awkward--and very special--relationship.

The best nutshell definition of Israeli-U.S. relations is still the one attributed to Moshe Dayan. "Our American friends," he allegedly quipped, "offer us money, weapons, and advice. We take the money, we take the weapons, and we decline the advice."

Dayan would have made a fabulous tweeter. But beware. The American-Israeli bond is so unique that it defies nutshelling. It's more of a nut grove. It never rested on reason of state alone. Between them, Americans and Israelis subvert the core curriculum of political-science departments and the truisms of international relations. Our friendship is of course about money, weapons, and advice--but also about something subtler.

To understand this, you need long-term memory. You need to go back to President Truman.

But let us start with short-term memory. Most young Israelis today picture the U.S. within a few basic pixels: Internet, 9/11, smartphones, CSI, Batman, Obama. Israelis always belonged with the rest of the world when it bathed in things American, all the way from West Side Story remakes to Occupy Wall Street T-shirts. Except that we never developed a stark anti-Americanism of either the European or Muslim brands. We depended on the U.S. too much, and we kind of liked it, too.

Not all of it. Not all of us. Many habits, etiquettes, and turns of phrase are lost in translation. Israeli Jews are not the bagel-and-lox Jews of downtown Manhattan, but the schnitzel-and-hummus fusion of Europe and the Middle East. American directness and Israeli bluntness do not always mix well. Idealistic Israelis, from Orthodox to socialist, like to chasten Americans for their hedonism, while Americans find Israelis a tad rough-hewn.

In the old days distance still mattered--you have to cross two ponds to get from Tel Aviv to New York. Today we follow each other's hurricanes and missile attacks online, and Israelis complain when a new season of South Park airs here two weeks in arrears. Old cultural layers blend with the new. From Moby-Dick to Mad Men, we are tuned in.

But Israel was never really colonized by America. No one felt the need to demonstrate in front of the first McDonald's franchise in the Holy Land. Instead Israelis picked and chose, reshaped and reinvented. Our Silicon Wadi vies with its big American brother in a small but daring way. So, more recently, does our television. A small culture is in good shape when it is able to respond to a global culture creatively and irreverently. I hope Israel can figure out a way to export creative irreverence.

Let's get to the harder nuts. The Israeli social protest in the summer of 2011 preceded the American Occupy Wall Street movement and to some degree inspired it. But our street-level activism was more peaceful, more mainstream, more effective, and it is still rolling. Israelis love American high tech, but consider American social arrangements distinctly low tech. When The Simpsons' Mr. Burns says, "This is America! Justice should favor the rich," Israeli viewers pay attention. Many of us admire America's constitutional stability and civil rights--not to mention its penchant for political satire--but prefer to look elsewhere for the foundations of our own social justice.

Do Israelis secretly dream of becoming Americans? Several hundreds of thousands fulfilled this dream, although American accents can be heard almost everywhere in Israel, too. Most Israelis would subscribe to the lines of a famous local band, Ethnix: "Life is not America, and America's just another place/It's all in your head/If you want it, the dream is here too." So when the State Department finally cancels the visa requirement, and even if it hands out green cards to every Israeli Bachelor of Science, don't expect our nation to relocate to yours. Barring disaster, our health-care system is still far better, our local patriotism is somewhat battered but alive, and the Israel Trail (well, yes, inspired by the Appalachian) is still one of the finest treks in the world. …