Some of my best friends are Israeli. Some aren't. A number of them used to be, but for one reason or another they've moved away. It seems that every time I begin getting really close to someone, they up and leave. Right now they can be found in places as far afield as Atlanta and Maputo. That's not a typo; it's the capital of Mozambique. They give me all sorts of reasons for their scattering abroad. Shattered dreams. Parents. Children. Jobs.
But by now I'm beginning to wonder if it's not me. Not "me" in the sense that I've done something to drive them away, but "me" as in maybe I'm not seeing something they do.
Recently one of those best friends was back for a visit and suggested just that. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, he told me, it will instantly jump out, but if you were to put that same frog into a pot of cold water and slowly begin heating it, the dull-witted creature will just swim around and around until it cooks to death. He wasn't reminiscing about seventh-grade biology labs; he was trying to explain to me why, after 36 years here, I was incognizant of just how much hot water this Jewish state of ours is in, and just how much hotter things are going to get. What you see from there you don't see from here.
And from there, what he sees happening here, he finds insufferable. Here's his short list: rampant xenophobia, corrupt politicians, exploitation of foreign workers, indefensible treatment of Palestinians, a growing trade in human flesh, ranting and raving in God's name, and deeply held prejudices against our Arab minority.
I cringe, wishing I could attribute his perception of things to biased reporting in the foreign media. I can't. The source of his observations, he assures me, is none other than the Israeli press, which he continues to follow avidly on the Internet. Instead, I assure him that I also find all of these things deeply disturbing.
"So why do you let them get away with it?" he demands of me. His question gets to the crux of the matter, and I hurl it back at him.
"Who, exactly, is letting them get away with it?" I demand in return.
"You are," he insists. "By living here, you're condoning it all."
"Is it possible that it's you who are condoning it by not living here?"
The conversation continues and I explain that I didn't move to Israel because I expected to chance upon an exemplary society, but rather because I was excited by the prospect of creating one. "I honestly feel privileged to have the opportunity to be involved in doing just that," I tell him. He begins to roll his eyes but I'm not easily intimidated. "The kind of country you and I want to live in," I argue, "is a project, not a present. Don't confuse our current state of affairs with the state we want to craft."
"I could accept that argument if things were moving in the right direction," he responds, "but they're not. What started as a dream is turning into a nightmare. Give me one good reason to come back."
"I'll give you a thousand," I shoot back. "An infinite number of little things that add up." It may be that what you see from there you don't see from here, but the opposite is certainly true: what you see from here, you don't see from there. And I launch into a litany of such visions, little dreams in the making.
MY LAST bank statement arrived together with a list of social action initiatives that the bank was sponsoring, encouraging me to utilize its services as part of its campaign to engage the business world in the community in order to rehabilitate marginalized youth.
Young colleagues of mine have recently established a communal settlement celebrating religious diversity. Others have been involved in pioneering a new model of cooperative living and social engagement in a conscious effort to build a more ethical and just society. And close friends have just moved to an old kibbutz with the explicit objective of revitalizing it together with others intent on creating a center of spirituality and learning in harmonious coexistence with both the environment and their Arab neighbors.
My daughter and son-in-law - she with a traditional upbringing and he from a secular home - are studying Kabbala together in one of hundreds of venues that have sprung up over the last decade encouraging serious study of Jewish sources in a non-coercive environment, encouraging "the new blossoming of the Jewish spirit" that many of our Zionist forebears had hoped for.
My wife and I regularly return from the theater and the cinema still hungry for distraction, but deeply inspired by original works of the highest caliber that leave us with a sense of having sat for hours before a merciless mirror.
My work with the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency brings me into contact with prominent figures from the corporate world who are fully engaged in hands-on philanthropy and volunteerism in projects ranging from the effective integration of new immigrants to the building of bridges between Arabs and Jews to preventive intervention with youngsters at risk.
The list of grassroots initiatives in this country is literally never-ending. Every day new efforts are launched by concerned individuals to alleviate suffering, assuage the pangs of hunger and lighten the burdens of poverty. And this is still a society young enough and nimble enough that every individual can make a difference. A dose of determination and a measure of gumption go a long way.
NO ONE promised me a rose garden when I moved here, I tell my friend, but they should have, as that's exactly what I found, thorns and all. Over the years, I've gotten my share of scars and scratches, even a tiny barb under the skin that I can't draw out that every once in a while acts up. There are seasons when the flowers are dazzling; others when the prickles predominate. But I am well aware that in the hands of a good gardener the blossoms can be cajoled into lasting a little longer.
As we part, I remind my best friend that this country is desperately in need of those who are critical of it. I tell him - and through him all those who are contemplating coming or coming back, all those who are teetering on the verge of leaving, and all those who are here and need a word of encouragement or a reminder of why they came in the first place - that things aren't going to change for the better if those who want Israel to be something other than what it is leave the country to those who don't.
"Keep dreaming," my friend tells me with a slap on the back and a tinge of cynicism in his voice as he takes leave of me.
"I intend to," I assure him.The writer represents worldwide Masorti/Conservative Judaism on the
executives of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, where
he also serves as head of the Department for Zionist Activities.