Out There: Discoveries in America

Out There Discoveries i

US and israel comic 248.88 (photo credit: Pepe Feinberg)
US and israel comic 248.88
(photo credit: Pepe Feinberg)
A recent trip to some 10 cities in North America left me with two distinct impressions: Israel has much more support than we generally think, and folks in the New World are obsessed with cleaning their hands. Regarding the wider support, there is a mistaken tendency here to think that because US President Barack Obama is not exactly George W. Bush on all our issues, all is lost and the Americans are about to sell us down the Monongahela River. False. A trip across America reminds one of the degree of support Israel enjoys both among Jews and non-Jews. I felt the non-Jewish support most acutely on a Wednesday night in northwestern Alabama. There, in the town of Florence just north of Muscle Shoals, a congressman I never heard of named Parker Griffith spoke of Israel in a way that could bring tears to the eyes. Here is Israel, getting slammed by the world and pressured by the Obama administration, and up stands Griffith - a first-term Democrat - and says to an interdenominational crowd of some 150 people gathered in the town's Reform synagogue: "I went to Israel as a tourist, and came back as a Zionist." Some in the crowd, not the Jews, said "amen" or the equivalent thereof, giving the whole scene the feeling of a town-hall-meeting staged for the movies. Griffith, a retired oncologist, talked about Israel's energy and ingenuity, and about the need for the US to stand by Israel and not be taken in by Iranian deception. He spoke of a recent trip to Israel, and how struck he was that places he heard about as a kid in Sunday school were actually real. When Israeli supporters look out at Congress in search of sympathetic faces, it is natural to look to areas with substantial Jewish populations: New York, Florida and California. You don't generally look toward northern Alabama. But you should. I asked Griffith the source of his support, and two of his answers should give us some buoyancy. The first relates to his remarks about seeing in Israel places he read about in the Bible. Griffith, an Episcopalian, grew up on the Old Testament and is familiar with it - it means something to him. Secondly, he went to medical school at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where he had a number of Jewish friends. Those friends, he said, cared greatly about Israel, and it rubbed off. THERE ARE myriad reasons why the American public continues to back Israel, as polls indicate year after year. Two of those reasons came together in this congressman: a deep-rooted faith in and familiarity with the Bible, and friendship with American Jews who often have an abiding passion for Israel, and who convey that commitment to their friends and coworkers. But, say the gloom and doomers, Griffith came across the old-time Jews in Baton Rouge, not the new generation that lacks that same visceral connection to Israel. The younger generation, according to this argument, was born after the Holocaust, doesn't remember a world without Israel, and is embarrassed by some of the country's actions. And, indeed, that element exists; it is there. But it is not all there is. It is all we hear about, but it is not all there is. Alongside the disconnected Jews and the radical anti-Israeli left-wing Jewish fringe is a core group of enthusiasts who devote considerable time, energy and money to supporting Israel. Meeting them is uplifting. Take, for instance, Zach Garber, a sophomore at the University of Texas in Austin, one of the heads of a campus group called Texans for Israel. On the day I visited Austin, the pro-Palestinian group at the school had erected an "apartheid wall" on campus, and Garber and his group were busy strategizing: drafting letters and press releases and planning counter moves. True, Garber's is a small group, but it is a devoted and vocal one. And these groups are not limited to Texas. Small, active pro-Israeli groups exist on campuses across the country. That the masses of Jewish kids on campus aren't knocking down the doors to join these organizations should not be a reason for disillusionment. Rather, that groups like Garber's exist should be a source of encouragement. Revolutions are led by a vanguard, not the masses. Indeed, Garber's hand, and the hands of those like him, should be shaken in appreciation. But when you do shake their hands, bring along some disinfection gel with you, or you will feel out of place. The America I visited in November was a vastly changed place from the one I visited in April - and it had nothing to do with Obama. Rather, it had to do with swine flu. HOWARD HUGHES, the 20th-century billionaire who was famously obsessed with germs, would revel in the new North America. Everywhere you look someone is washing or disinfecting his hands. And it gets downright confusing. For instance, some soap dispensers in public places are automatic, lest you touch the other guy's germs when you get your soap, and some dispensers you still have to push. It's not always clear which is which, and in one airport rest room I found myself waving my hands furiously below a soap dispenser, thinking it the automatic type, only to be told by a bemused onlooker that this particular machine dispensed soap the old-fashioned way. The heights to which the clean-hands concern has reached was best illustrated at a vibrant synagogue in the lovely Jewish community of Hamilton, Ontario, where - as in Austin and Florence - there is a strong and heartwarming core of pro-Israel activists and support. At the exit to the synagogue, sitting on what looks like a pedestal, sits a jug of hand disinfection gel. Familiar with the dangers of the H1N1 virus, I understand where all this hand-cleaning frenzy is coming from. But still, there is something a bit off-putting about shaking someone's hand with a "Shabbat shalom" greeting, only to then watch the guy go sanitize his paws. That quaint Sephardi tradition here of kissing one's hand after shaking hands as a sign of esteem wouldn't fly these days in Hamilton. But, come to think of it, maybe it shouldn't fly here either - unless alongside the hand disinfection gel, one makes readily available some mouthwash spray as well.