Playing it straight

Initially enthusiastic immigrants, many Americans don’t know how to present Israel to non-Jews if they return to live there.

Israel's Independence Day (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel's Independence Day
Baruch Hashem, praise the Lord and holy mackerel.
I’ve been here five years.
Regrets? One big one. That I didn’t make aliya when I first wanted to, back in 1970, when I was a whole lot younger, a great deal healthier, at least marginally cuter and knew everything.
I was a college senior, engaged to another senior whose well-to-do father (“I’ve never cashed an Israel bond”) was a devout Zionist and chronic disciple of David Ben-Gurion’s notion that every American Jewish family should take a stake in Israel by sending one child over.
The gist of our conversation: “Not with my daughter.”
But that, as they say, is water under the ducks. And this isn’t about how happy I am. It’s about olim I’ve known and loved, and known of, who went back. It’s about olim who virtually commute between two countries.
And to a small extent, it’s about some American Jews whom we all encounter on the Web and elsewhere.
They would never consider aliya, but are always ready to fight to the last Israeli. And their strident, arrogant, offensive bombast – they call it “hard-hitting” – sometimes makes me want to suggest that the best thing they can do for Israel is to shut up.
We olim types, especially we non-religious olim types, have a hard enough time explaining Israel to Americans without having to apologize for them.
The older returnees I know and know of, did not return to America embittered and disillusioned. Rather the contrary.
They felt like traitors, even though their reasons – health issues, family situations, vital business affairs – were perfectly valid. They remain committed to Israel.
But these returnees and commuters, and the rest of us, share a certain ugly memory whose meanings extend far beyond the events themselves.
Shall we speak plainly? If you’re a mega-hyper-global corporation with a staff of carnivorous lawyers and a half-dozen other countries bidding for your presence, you can do quite well here. Zillionaires, ditto. Young people starting out can also prosper. But woe betide those Americans who come here with a bit of cash, no legal goon squad, a less-than-perfect knowledge of Hebrew, and too much trust.
Real-estate purchases that never work out. Refunds and reimbursements never delivered. Business arrangements stuck in the courts for years. Outright fraud. Israeli lawyers who don’t regard smaller American clients as worth their best efforts, or any efforts.
Endless hassles with banks, service providers, credit- card companies and sundry other businesses.
Deal with it, we’re told. It’s the culture. Indeed it is.
But slapping the label “culture” on dishonesty, corruption, cronyism and fraud does not change the nature of those things.
And perhaps there’s a larger lesson for Israel here. Try playing it straight with Americans – and with America.
You’ll get much better results, once you stop regarding Americans as rich suckers to be fleeced, and America as a wealthy country that owes you.
Whatever their experiences, American commuters and returnees often find themselves in the position of having to explain Israel to the non-Jews they encounter in business and socially. Explaining Israel requires far more than butting heads and kicking butts with the anti-Semites. It entails answering the good people who want to know, What’s going on over there? And why? Hard to explain. But you can, if you play it straight.
Far harder to explain are the rhetorical excesses of Israel’s American “defenders,” both self-proclaimed and organizationally affiliated. To put it bluntly, I’ve yet to encounter one, one, who had any idea what he or she was doing. But no matter. They’ve convinced themselves that they’re doing God’s work, or at least that they’ve got the contract or the grant. Real-world failure only signifies the need for more of the same.
And now that Israel-on-the-Hill is slowly fading – the congressional types still talk the talk but you’d be amazed how many are looking around for the exits – alienating their constituents may not be such a smart idea.
A while ago, one returnee and I exchanged a few emails on this dilemma. He asked me for my thoughts on how to talk about Israel. In essence, I told him: “Look, you’re a smart businessman, a successful consultant.
You know that just because something is important to you, nobody else is obligated to feel the same way. Nor are they monsters or enemies if they don’t. Your job is to find out what they value, and why, and how you might work together.
“You offer your best. If what you offer isn’t obviously beneficial to your clients, you work with them to understand. If they accept only in part, that’s still better than nothing. For both of you.
“But for this to work, you have to play it straight.
People want – still want – and respect honesty, not devious manipulation poorly cloaked as righteousness.
And if they expect so little honesty nowadays – surprise them. They’ll value you all the more.”
True for business. True for people. True for countries.
The writer is an American oleh who would like, once again, to thank Nefesh B’Nefesh for its great work.