Israel begins not with 'I,' but with 'we'

Impressions of a temporary oleh.

Jerusalem Day parade 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem Day parade 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For a people consumed by the past and tantalized by the future, Israelis live fully in the present. Israeli Jews are directed by a calendar established 1,600 years ago. Stories thousands of years old are recalled annually as part of the rhythm of the annual cycle. Israelis are reminded on Pessah of the Exodus - and, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, of the pain and suffering of their kin. Yad Vashem drew over one million visitors last year, and Israel remains number one in the world in museums per capita. On visits to Mount Herzl, the Begin Museum, Ammunition Hill and Latrun, I found myself often accompanied by battalions of soldiers. History lives in the land of the Bible. An obsession with the past does not preclude an ability to imagine the future. Second only to the US in the number of companies listed on NASDAQ, Israeli forward-looking entrepreneurship is a cultural phenomenon. Israel is a leader in vital technologies and the evolution of the science of tomorrow, including desalination, game theory and electric cars. Israel's eight Nobel laureates equals in number India's - a country 161 times its size. That said, Israelis are master multitaskers. It is not just the absence of time resulting from a high birth rate and a six-day work week. Amid their focus on yesterday and their ability to conceive of tomorrow, Israelis live each day fully. No - they live each moment fully. SOME OF this is a function of circumstance. Enduring a war a decade, being the number-one target of terror and residing in a home ill-situated in its geopolitical neighborhood all add up to a need to be on high alert. A parliamentary system in which coalitions shift by the day also plays a part in keeping one constantly engaged. I vividly remember an interview a few years ago with the father of a draftee to Major League baseball. His son had just been picked in the first round and was due to make millions of dollars in a guaranteed contract. When asked how he was feeling, the boy's father, a blue-collar worker, responded: "I am not interested in the money. I believe that life is about collecting experiences, not dollars." This from a man who was scraping to get by. I recall being moved and surprised by the man's response; I doubt that Israelis would consider it all that unusual. Israelis choose to live with a sense of purpose. Unlike Americans, Israelis assertively choose to be a part of Jewish present and history. Sadly, they are all too aware of the tenuous nature of life. As such, they treat life as a gift - each moment a chance to live a life of purpose. From the challenge of circumstance comes a special responsibility and privilege. A FEW years ago, the Israel on Campus Coalition, a partnership of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation were working to promote Israel on college campuses across the United States. To accomplish this, the group launched a campaign with the slogan "Israel Starts with I." I think that Israel, in fact, starts with "we." Perhaps the Israeli "we" stems from the tenuous nature and small size of the state. Maybe it is rooted in the history of the kibbutz movement and the collective sacrifice of military service. Perhaps it is the call of faith. Israelis serve together, travel together, pray together and barbecue together. Though much is made of the various political, economic and religious differences that separate Israelis, as an observer from outside, I see a place where you have more in common than you think. I was amazed to learn that at the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, more than 100 percent of Israeli reservists reported for combat duty (many no longer on active rosters showed up). THOUGH THERE is lots about which to complain in Israel, there is also a great deal to celebrate. I see a people with an understanding of what matters most, and an ability to subjugate ego to work toward common purpose. This is but one of the many things that make Israel a special place. The writer was chief operating officer for Timberland.