Back to my homeland?
 
I'm no longer sure what is my homeland.
 
I did not flee the US, in contrast to relatives of earlier generations who felt they had to leave Eastern Europe or Germany, but to take a job that looked interesting. Over time, I became more Israeli and less American, but maintain feelings and connections in both places.
 
I've been renewing some family contacts, and listening to lots of people say what they think.
 
I've encountered bubbles. Americans are more parochial than Europeans or Israelis, who are only a short ride or flight from another country and frequently cross borders.
 
Over the years I've encountered lots of bubbles. Some of the bubbles appeared around people I met. Others were mine, made apparent to me by meeting people much different. That is partly what makes travel interesting.
 
A few stories will illustrate the point.
 
In Afghanistan, a short time before the Russian invasion and decades before 9-11 put that isolated place in the headlines, I stayed for a night at what passed for a hotel in a small village 60 or so kilometers west of Kabul. The fee was about $4, plus another $2 for a man to sit in my room all night and keep putting wood in the stove.
 
He spoke enough English to ask me, "How long does it take to get to America from here by bus?" Perhaps the work of putting wood in the stove was provoking him to look elsewhere.
 
"You can't get to America by bus."
 
"Why?"
 
"The ocean."
 
"What's that?"
 
I tried to explain, but I sense that I failed. He told me about the buses that come to the nearby stream and are poled across on a raft. "Why can't they do that on the ocean?"
 
I was in Afghanistan to lecture at the university, sponsored by the Cultural Desk of the American Embassy. The Afghans wouldn't let me talk to students, but I met with the faculty of social science. Most had degrees from Eastern European universities, and there were a number of women. All were dressed as in western universities. None in burqas, providing full coverage, with only a screen-like portion over the eyes, which are what most Afghan women wear out of the home.
 
One of the women at my seminar made the point that burqas are more useful than suggested by their image in the west. They allow a woman to leave the house without having to fix her hair or her face.
 
One of my stories even more clearly reflects my own bubble. It came while doing research in East Africa. During a family holiday in a cabin on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. I told a village shopkeeper how his country's concern for the wildlife impressed me favorably.
 
His response, "A leopard ate my grandmother."
 
To that, I had no response.
 
These stories from my travels to the Third World may have come to mind due to US statistics showing substantial parts of the country to be Third World in character. 
 
Americans reading this are aghast, or reaching for the delete button. Some may insist, as they have at times, that I forfeit my US citizenship for insulting the country. But they should be checking the facts. Wikipedia is a good place to start, insofar as it assembles data from a number of sources, many of them US Government agencies.
 
At issue are measures of health, violence, road safety, and equality. Key indicators show the US in the range of Third World countries. Another indicator has part of the explanation. US taxes are at the bottom of the list for western democracies. Americans get what they pay for, and they don't pay taxes like Israelis or other westerners.
 
Unless we made some wrong turns, we wouldn't be traveling to Third World areas of the US. As I've noted several times in these messages, the US contains the best and the worst of what is available. My guess is that the overwhelming majority of Americans reading these notes enjoy the best of what's available, in terms of safe neighborhoods and health insurance that enables them to buy some of the best care available in the world.  It used to be that such people would be sending their kids to high quality public schools. Now, however, the cost of the good life in the US is likely to involve tuition at private schools from kindergarten upward.
 
The city of Cleveland is as Third World as any, with a murder rate 83 per 100,000 population, compared to Israel's  2 per 100,000. However, the Cleveland Clinic, whose main unit is located in the central city, is as good as anything on the planet. And some of Cleveland's suburbs are first class.
 
Friday evening at a Mandel endowed JCC was crowded with upscale people, the cantor was impressive, but her voice would have sent Israel's religious parties to high fever of condemnation. A local police officer sat at a central desk with video feeds from numerous cameras on the extensive campus. A threat from an unhinged  Israeli-American had caused an evacuation from some of its buildings. 
 
In our next stop we encountered another aspect of US variations. Families in Seattle concerned about education lament the quality of the public schools, and tend toward private alternatives. We heard of tuition in the range of. $16-$30,000 a year for middle or high school, with some of the posher ones having annual trips overseas for an extra payment. One family found it more efficient to move to a suburb heavily populated with Microsoft and other high tech families, where the public schools are at least as good as the better private schools in Seattle. 
 
In one of those high-tech dominated suburbs, we wandered into a play ground and encountered a number of young mothers, dads,  and kids chattering in Israeli-accented Hebrew.
 
It takes a lot of work to get what is good in the US. You have to shop around for the best neighborhood,  public or private school or college, and the most suitable health insurance. And of course you need lots of smarts, money, and flexibility to seek and exploit what's good for you. You start off advantaged if born in one of the better states and localities, and into a family that provides support and the training appropriate to all the research and decision making that will lead to the best and not to the worst of America.
 
Getting a good higher education in the US provides its own maze. A major problem is cost, with elite colleges costing above $60,000 per year, and even state universities likely to cost $20,000 per year for in-state students. Compare that with the equivalent of $3,500 for Israeli university tuition, and no tuition in some European countries. The accumulation of student loans can become the equivalent of a home mortgage or more for an American going to medical or law school, or acquiring another profession. 
 
The costs of an elite American education are hardly worth it when coming with anti-Semitism in class or elsewhere on campus,  fueled by scholarships to Palestinians recruited under misplaced concerns for diversity. There are ample stories, including from my own alma mater, of faculty members and administrators, including some over-the-edge Jews, who target anything approaching an even-handed or pro-Israeli posture by a student or faculty member.
 
It's hard to stay balanced while thinking about the US. The good is ideal, and the bad is terrible. It has been that way from the beginning, with masters and slaves, and pioneers going after the natives.
 
The good life in the US can be very good. We concluded this visit in a guest unit of an upscale senior facility north of Los Angeles.  Walking and talking with residents, as we have done on several occasions while visiting a cousin, brought us into contact with range of people whose working lives had been somewhere near the top of business, science, academia, and other professions. They have villas or apartments on a campus that isn't much smaller than Jerusalem's Old City, and a range of care when needed . It's as good a place to age as any we've seen.
 
On this trip, politics was never very far from family updates. And while there was never anything like a survey, the views encountered seemed to fit the span apparent from the media. Expressions about Trump and his presidency went from ridicule to support, along with "understanding," a sense that he may be learning, and--among some--a  certainty that he was better than Obama-Clinton.
 
Even some well-off supporters admitted to worry about the President's inexperience in government, his crudity,  lack of policy-relevant knowledge, and unpredictability. 


Individual views are more or less sophisticated and nuanced. Summary or judgement is not simple. We're still at the beginning of Trump's America, and so is the President. We can hope that he and his key appointees are learning that government and politics differ from the campaign, and from the board rooms where they learned to dominate.


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


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