Some of my American friends are unhappy.

 
They are telling me to stick with Israel. That I no longer understand the US. Some go further. They ask to be dropped from my list, and/or demand that I give up my American citizenship.


I'll defend myself with a counter charge of excess patriotism, by friends (and some relatives) who cannot tolerate criticism of their country, or do not know enough about the world to know how it compares with others.


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I'll not claim the detailed knowledge of American politics and society that I had years ago. However, lots of news and commentary reaches me, and I doubt that I've lost all that I once had by way of knowledge and judgment. Moreover, living elsewhere has sensitized me to cultural differences that impact on a society and its government.


Like others who have moved from one country to another, I find myself somewhere in the middle, feeling at home, but not entirely, in more than one place.


The phenomenon is pronounced among Israelis from Germany and the former Soviet Union, who both value what they acquired in their previous homes, but do not forget why they left, or fled.


I never thought of myself as fleeing the United States. I took a position at the Hebrew University due to my interest in Israel, with some of the same feelings of gain and loss as I earlier felt when moving from the University of Georgia to the University of Wisconsin. 


I wrote The United States: A Study of a Developing Country before I left the US, drawing on my experiences in Fall River, the Deep South, and travels in the Third World.


Among the German and Dutch relatives that i acquired along with Varda, I heard the United States described as some combination of Chicago gangsters and the Wild West, and that Europeans who migrated to the US were mostly an inferior kind who could not succeed at home. Occasionally I felt myself being viewed with suspicion by those who were not sure about having an American in their family.


I recall a trip that we took with Varda's parents from Madison, Wisconsin, along the Mississippi to Minneapolis. Her father had a German doctorate and law degree, and had reached the upper levels of Israel's Central Bank. He was as worldly as any, but expressed surprise that the American river--in its least impressive portion--was more than the Rhine.


National culture is important. Along with economics, it is among the major factors that influence politics and public policy.


The relevant components of culture are harder to define than a country's economic traits. Analysis is in large part speculative, or soft. American culture now reflects the beliefs and actions of 320 million people. Yet one of the clearest traits of the US has something to do with individual rights, and criticism of  controls that mark most other Western governments.


The US got off to a curious but crucially important beginning for all that has come since, when it developed key slogans as part of its rebellion against England.


No taxation without representation, and Don't tread on me pretty much summarize the sources of American individualism. However, the doubtful credibility of the slogans also has something to do with the glories of "Americanism" being more symbol than substance.


Few Englishmen (and no Englishwomen) had the vote in the 18th century, and the onerous increase in taxation was justified for pay for Britain's war against the French and Indians, which served to defend the American colonies.


That the slogans are still alive is apparent from the fierce opposition to one of Barack Obama's most admirable accomplishments, i.e., producing a Congressional compromise on national health insurance. Among its limits is linkage to private, profit-making insurance companies. They represent American values of individualism and free enterprise which continues to limit the quality of health care when compared to programs rooted in not-for-profit insurance in most of Europe as well as Israel.


Ranking countries by taxation is one of the most complex of issues that puzzle economists and political scientists. The best general ranking is total government expenditures as a percentage of GDP,.


The US scores lower on that general measure of taxation than most countries of Europe (and Israel).


But not by all that much. Since the 1930s American policymakers at federal and state levels have struggled against the slogans of the Revolution.


Yet they are still apparent on matters of gun control as well as health care, and the lack of effort or success dealing with the most serious of the country's social problems.


A long article in The Washington Post describes an uptick in murders, which some link to a side effect of America's social ills, i.e., what is being called a "Ferguson effect," by which police seek to avoid problems for themselves by avoiding Blacks and letting them kill one another without police interference..


The inner cities of some suburbs of American metropolitan areas look pretty much like, or even worse, than a number of Third World countries on measures of violence and limited education.


I always thought that my home town of Fall River was remarkable in having 30 percent of its young people who do not complete high school, until I encountered relatives from Rochester, New York, who told me about drop out rates of 60 percent in that city.


I'll continue to feel attachment to both of my countries, without pondering degrees of loyalty. And I'll continue to describe both, without hesitation to employ less than laudable adjectives when appropriate. 


Several of my correspondents hold to the outmoded notion that the US is the most successful of countries, with the greatest opportunities and providing the essence of freedom. Most of those holding such beliefs will continue to focus on their own upscale neighborhood or suburb. Either they do not know how to find social indicators, they do not know how to read them, or they simply prefer to overlook what is not too far away and looks like the lesser attractive parts of Latin America, Africa, or Gaza.


Criticism is part of the business I've been in for nearly 60 years. I learn from much of it. Some shapes my subsequent notes. Also encountered are occasional comments that go over the borders of anti-Semitism. That too, is part of the business for anything that touches on Jews, or Israel.


Comments welcome
-- 
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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