When they heard about the Sandy Hook school slaughter, my children were surprised that the school had no security guards. Educated in Jewish schools in Montreal and in Jerusalem, they have always studied shielded by security guards and locked gates. They take that situation for granted, even as resent Jews’ unfortunate vulnerability in both cities. I want my kids, I want all kids, to live in a world where schools are the super-safe refuges they should be rather than the targets for terrorists and maniacs they sometimes are.
Our discussion about this latest burst of American insanity, along with America’s outpouring of grief amidst Connecticut’s Christmas tinsel and lights, highlight important differences in the American and Israeli approaches to tragedy. Americans tend to be surprised, repeatedly, reflecting an ever-renewable sense of innocence reinforced by serious doses of amnesia. Meanwhile, Israelis are all too used to tragedy, reflecting a worldweariness reinforced by repeated doses of historical trauma. Americans risk being too naïve; Israelis risk becoming too cynical.
America’s innocence stems from some of the nation’s best qualities. The can-do pioneering spirit, the Revolutionary search for virtue, the democratic faith in the mystical power of the people, and the Constitution’s extraordinarily effective self-correcting mechanism, all played out on a continental expanse, have made Americans a particularly positive people. These are the people who could turn Europe’s dark, macabre, Grimm’s fairy tales into the magical Technicolor world of Disney, with its guaranteed happy endings. And these are the people, dazzled by the Declaration of Independence’s celebration of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, who created the world’s first mass middle class civilization.
Israelis share some of that American pixie dust that can make deserts bloom, turn third world refugees into productive democratic citizens, make a rudimentary economy with no natural resources prosper and transform communities of preyed-upon survivors into a nation of proud winners. But unfortunately, while the American pursuit of happiness since World War II has enabled most Americans to live in a leisure world bubble, the Israeli pursuit of simple survival since World War II has been clouded by Arab violence. This ongoing Arab war against Israel’s existence, cheered by too many people worldwide, builds on layers of historic Jewish suffering, teaching Israelis sobering lessons about the evil surrounding their Eden.
I recently learned just how quick that Israeli learning curve is. The first time the air raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem during Hamas’s unconscionable rocket barrage this November, targeting Jerusalem upset my children, which they expressed in a variety of ways. “Why would they aim at Jerusalem when there are so many Arabs here and so many Arab mosques,” my ten-year-old daughter asked, far too pure of heart to grasp Hamas’s twisted totalitarian calculus that will sacrifice anyone in pursuit of their exterminationist agenda. Four days later, as I walked her home from school and the sirens sounded again, she was calm. “Now, I know what to do,” she told me matter of factly.
Her normalization of the abnormal was heroic yet tragic. On some levels, I prefer the American reaction of constantly being surprised when horrible things happen – it reflects a more appealing innocence, a greater faith in the world’s sanity, which Israeli kids deserve too.
For Israelis, at least their worst nightmares come from outside the community, from clearly defined enemies. One of the deeply unsettling aspects of America’s school shootings, mall shootings, and the crime epidemic itself is that the perpetrators come from within the community. Maniacs masquerading as regular people who suddenly turn lethal are Trojan horses whose surprising betrayal worsens the trauma. While Israel risks creating a garrison state, America’s homegrown horrors - although not 9/11 – risk sowing suspicion throughout the community and fears that everyday American life can produce such monsters. Pundits are making the carnage in the ironically named “new” town the latest symbol of America’s troubles: our ugly politics, our vulgar culture, our frail economy, our frayed families, our strained psyches, our fragile society. Once again, we ask, is this what the American democratic experiment has wrought?
In both societies, self-blame perpetuates an illusion of control. Blaming American society for a psychopath’s sins suggests that repairing the offending rip in the social fabric will somehow prevent these paroxysms of violence. Similarly, Israelis who take on too much Israeli guilt for the ongoing conflict, remove Arabs and their enduring enmity from the narrative.
Neither a naïve faith in happy endings for all nor a cynical expectation that life sucks will do. We are back to theology 101, the lesson of Genesis, the eternal conundrums of why bad things happen to good people. That evil exists in the world does not make the world evil. That horrors happen does not mean they will happen to you. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and his wives, navigate through a world of trauma and betrayal, sometimes in their own families. But like lone flowers that flourish in the desert, like the stories of teacher heroism that emerged amid the Newtown massacre, our forefathers and foremothers teach that ugliness highlights the beauty in the world, faith can persist, good can triumph.
Americans sing that after the night-long bombardment of Fort McHenry, the flag was still there; Israelis sing that the hope of 2000 is not yet lost despite a heap of hell. With different coping mechanisms, and contrasting impulses sometimes, both Americans and Israelis remain hooked on hope, ready to be redeemed. Both Israeli cynicism, pessimism, realism – call it what you will – and American naivete, optimism, innocence have created the ultimate democratic coping mechanism, enlisting most citizens as empowered soldiers fighting for good against evil, for beauty against ugliness. Long may we triumph.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author, most recently, of “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism.”