A jam-packed journey of self-discovery

After his latest trip here, an American Jew finally resolves the tension between his two identities.

By JOEL KOCEN
July 30, 2008 22:51
A jam-packed journey of self-discovery

US Israel 88. (photo credit: )

My wife Jo Ann and I have taken many trips to Israel, but it was our eighth, at the beginning of this summer, which provided an epiphany. We had a lifetime of experiences in just three weeks. During our stay we visited Sderot, a city under siege. We saw Gaza, an enclave of hate surrounded by barbed wire with despair inside, its people devoid of hope and its leaders determined to keep them in misery with "Death to Israel" as their mantra. We had a few days of pure vacation in Tel Aviv - a city that is as alive, vibrant and luxurious as any in the world, with beaches, restaurants, shops, skyscrapers and busy people. Arts and commerce coexist in perfect harmony. These Jews know how to live. We then got down to the business of the trip: Haifa's six-day meeting of the American Technion Society, whose mission is to support the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and its programs. We were to see what was going on and decide if we would commit funds for its endeavors. A word about Haifa. Mix Route 22 near Boston with Silicon Valley and throw in a large touch of San Diego's biotech labs, and you get a feel for that northern town. Combine the wellspring of brainpower, the determination of the Technion's faculty and students and the huge investment of capital from around the world, and you get a location in which every major corporation searching for tomorrow has a building, a lab and a staff. This location has fueled Israel's transition from agriculture to hi-tech. The economy is booming (5 percent annual growth) and optimism permeates the air. Do you want to look into the future? Look no further than the labs and classrooms of the Technion. We witnessed time-lapse photography through electron microscopes that disclosed the secrets of cancer cells mutating; patches allowing the regeneration of bone tissue; nano robots that cruise through the body delivering medication; computerized face-recognition programs that can pick a terrorist out of a crowd; embryonic stem cells morphed into a biological patch to fix a diseased heart; and the list goes on and on. At the end of our American Technion Society meeting, our group of 70 participants gathered to decide if we would pledge resources to further the university's programs. In the space of 45 minutes, $16,000,000 was pledged. Jews and Israel came together for tikkun olam, repairing the world. In Jerusalem we were treated to yet another aspect of Israeli existence, as we got into the down-and-dirty game of political scandal. In a candid off-the-record briefing from David Horovitz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, I got the most comprehensive view of Israel's challenges, both military and political, that I have heard anywhere. He did not blow smoke or spout false optimism, nor did he say that "all is lost." He gave us a dose of realism that was sobering and thought provoking. He let us know that America is in this struggle with Israel. Israel is fighting the free world's war with radical Islam, and we better appreciate it. During our visit to Jerusalem, the scandal involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's taking of money from a New York financier was the news de jour. Speculation was rampant that Olmert would resign, maybe even that day. We listened to the debate in the Knesset with Ehud Barak calling for Olmert's resignation. Our guide translated as the politicians flung out charges and counter charges. Those guys really know how to land a political punch. No-holds-barred democracy at its roughest. As we prepared to fly back to the US, we were asked by our Israeli friends to come and spend the day with them at home in Modi'in. The town is exactly like any town in Middle America. The home is modern, and replete with computers for every member of the family. They have the most modern appliances, two cars and every gadget you can imagine. The husband is employed in a hi-tech company, and the wife is director of social services for the city of Kiryat Malachi. Their daughters have careers of their own, and the son will soon go into the army. These Israelis share the same American values we do: the good life, family around and careers. And they are willing to work for it. On our way back to California we stopped off in Washington to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference. We were to hear, over the ensuing three days, speeches from an awesome array of candidates, congressional leaders, Israeli leaders, administration spokespeople and famous opinion makers. American political power brokers came to court 7,500 interested, influential, and financially sympathetic voters. The American Jewish political community came to listen, make decisions - and discuss their positions on pressing Israeli-related legislation with their congressional representatives. We are a political force to be reckoned with, and we knew it. So did the media, which covered all phases of the event. Politician after politician, including the secretary of state, declared Israel's unrestricted right to defend itself. All made the analogy that the United States would not tolerate a foreign missile falling on its soil without major retaliation, and Israel is entitled to no less. Then there were the three presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton had not yet suspended her campaign). John McCain spoke first. Clear, unequivocal, and solid in his support, he knew the situation in Israel intimately, having traveled to the region countless times both as a private citizen and as a representative of the US government. Clinton spoke the next day. If we didn't know better, we would have sworn she was an Israeli citizen; she knew everyone who is anyone in Israel. Barack Obama's speech was spellbinding. Though most of it was in general terms, he brought the crowd to its feet with the words, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." No other candidate had said those magic words, and the crowd hooted and hollered. I thought perhaps Obama had won the day. But, alas, the very next day "following protests from Palestinian and Hamas government officials," he reversed himself. On the third day of the conference, we all went to see our congresswoman. I, with our delegation of 30 from Palm Springs, pleaded with Mary Bono to support pro-Israel legislation. It was one of my proudest moments as an American Jew to stand in that office in the nation's capital and exercise my constitutional right to petition the government . TWO WEEKS later we had resumed our hectic lives in the desert. As members of the board of directors of the Jewish Community School of the Desert, Jo Ann and I attended the annual graduation and close-of-year ceremonies. The ceremony began with two students bringing in the stars and stripes and the Israeli flag. The students, all 64 of them, marched in, kindergarten first, and on through the sixth grade. The national anthem was sung by all, followed by "Hatikva." The students entertained us in a program ranging from Israeli rap and "Over the Rainbow" in Hebrew to American Broadway showtunes. Here was a blend of cultures presented by American children who were as comfortable as Jews as I had been uncomfortable when I was that age. And then the revelation hit me. I was no longer conflicted being a Jew, an American and an unabashed supporter of Israel. The America in which I had grown up had changed, and I had hardly noticed. When I was a child and the kids in the schoolyard would shout, "Jew, if it came to war, who would you die for?" I would say, "For America, of course." But what if a Jewish relative in Israel were in peril; what would I do then? Now I knew the answer: We would die for either or both. This change is profound. We don't have to be "either/or." Being American, Jewish and loving Israel is one continuum. And that is why these last weeks have changed my life. The author is a semi-retired businessman in Rancho Mirage, California.


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