Counterpoint: Envy in the Diaspora

American Jewish boomers see life in Israel as full of family, social commitment - and excitement.

david forman 88 (photo credit: )
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
Here I am in sunny California, in the dreamlike town of Santa Barbara. I was invited to participate in the Jewish community's celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary. As I was introduced to the crowd, a loud roar greeted me. While I would have liked to believe that the extended applause was for me, I knew better - it was for the Jewish state, which I had the honor to represent. I gazed out at the mass of people - like me, the vast majority being the oldest of the baby-boomer generation. I could not help but wonder: What is it about Israel that pulled at the heartstrings of these 60-somethings? Why would they want to assume the headaches of Israel, and the need to defend it from the onslaught of the ultra-liberal members of the local community, many of whom were affiliated with the California university system, that included the Santa Barbara campus - a hotbed, like its sister school, Berkeley, of virulent anti-Israel activism? With Israel mercilessly and oftentimes unfairly attacked because of its continued occupation of the West Bank, one would think that Jews abroad would lower their Israel profile. So, why such an impressive turnout to fete Israel? Jealousy. LET ME explain. A while ago, I attended my 40th high-school reunion. The night before the main event, 15 of the Jewish members of the class gathered together. In the course of our conversations, I learned that most of my childhood friends had amassed wealth I will never approximate, live in homes so big my entire apartment would fit into their living rooms, had traveled the world, visiting places I only read about, and were engaged in important work that significantly impacted people's lives. And yet all of them, by their own admission, were jealous of me by virtue of the fact that I live in Israel. As children of the '60s, we were social activists - civil rights, anti-Vietnam, Soviet Jewry. More important than feeling a moral compulsion to create a new social order or espousing liberal slogans was translating our social concerns into action - being carted off to prison demonstrating against segregation in Selma, Alabama, Oxford, Mississippi and Little Rock, Arkansas; blocking entrances to army recruitment centers; and chaining ourselves to the gate of the Russian embassy. As the activist '60s gave way to the mellow '70s and the reactionary '80s, concomitantly with the natural aging process that saw us become grandparents in the '90s, the rigor of youthful activism diminished. My friends felt a measure of guilt for their lack of involvement today, but also felt a vicarious satisfaction in knowing that their classmate in Israel was still carrying a torch of social concern. It mattered little what side of the political spectrum I was on. The fact of my engagement made them envious. Throughout their lives they believed that to be socially involved was a central moral value, but as they grew older, they felt they had failed to fulfill their ethical obligation to remain active and pass that value on to their children. They mused about what it would be like to live in a country like Israel, where social commitment seemed to be a national trait. They wished that the requirement to serve in the army or do national service was something their kids had experienced. I might add that of the 15 participants in our pre-reunion get together, only 13 were still married to the same person. Even though most of my friends were married to non-Jews, their sentimental attachment to Judaism was such that they preferred their children to marry Jews, as is natural in Israel, but not the case for almost all of their kids. They rightfully believed that there is less of a generation gap in Israel, and that parents and children here share a commonality of experiences that binds them closer to one another. Virtually all the children from their blended families lived nowhere near them, unlike the normal family configuration in Israel, where kids live in a small radius of their parents and each other - another reason for my classmates' envy. I expected my friends to ply me with questions about the occupation, Gaza, settlements, Hizbullah and Hamas, along with terrorism, war and the threat of a nuclear confrontation with Iran. Not that they were disinterested in such weighty matters or did not have their criticisms of Israel, but surprisingly that was not their focus when we talked, although they admired Israelis' resilience in the face of danger and their ability to be leaders in the fields of literature, art, medicine, technology and science. Most interesting of all was that they were envious of the excitement that descends upon Israel, with the greatest amount of envy being directed to our living in sealed rooms during the Gulf War (the kind of excitement we could live without). They saw my life in Israel as being far more adventurous than theirs in America; as one classmate longingly put it: "You do not live a boring life." And so, as I looked out at the crowd, I recalled my reunion and realized that with all the monumental challenges we Israelis face, we lead an enviable life. In acknowledgement and appreciation of this simple fact, throngs of people filled the public square to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary.