50 Years Later, A Bet On Israel Pays off – By: Zev Chafetz
This week marks a personal milestone: the 50th anniversary of my arrival in Israel. I was a junior year abroad student from the University of Michigan, in search of college credits and a look at Jews in their natural habitat. It didn’t occur to me that I would wind up going native.
It was not love at first sight. Israel lacked things that a boy from Pontiac, Michigan, regarded as essential elements of civilization. There was no Coke, for example. TV was banned on the grounds that it would keep the workers up too late. Rock ‘n’ roll was regarded as a vulgar corrupter of youth. Air conditioning, since it was unaffordable, was pronounced unhealthy. People told me things I already knew (“Here we have a saying that the grass is greener in the yard of your friend”) or assuming my knowledge of things I didn’t (stores were closed on Saturdays). Everyone asked if I was planning to stay. When I said no, I got a lecture on my Zionist obligations; if I said yes, they told me I must be crazy.
Small-town Reform Judaism (someone once called it “the Democratic Party with holidays”) and a year of college Hebrew did not remotely prepare me what I found. I was a Motown kid in a land where people danced in circles to the tune of an accordion. In the States, my friends dodged the draft; here everyone my age was a soldier. A sexual revolution was taking place on the campus in Ann Arbor, and I wanted to hit the barricades.
Still, there was something romantic about being in a small, endangered country that was a year younger than me. Israel was rough but real. I had roots here, even if they were not immediately discernible. As the year went along, I felt a tug. My Hebrew improved. I got an Israeli haircut. I adopted a new first name (“William” sounds silly in a language lacking the letter W). I learned not to stare at people with numbers tattooed on their arms.
Early one morning in March 1968, I was wandering home from a party when I encountered a column of armored cars and trucks loaded with soldiers moving slowly along Jerusalem’s main drag. The Six-Day War had been won 10 months earlier, but the Arab states didn’t accept defeat. There was once again fighting on the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts.
I later learned that those soldiers were returning for an intense and not wholly successful battle. They looked dusty, downcast and exhausted. Many, I imagined, were sons of the men and women with the tattoos. Standing on the sidewalk gawking at them made me uncomfortable. These soldiers were my age, and they were doing my fighting for me.
The next day I showed up at the army induction center and offered my services. An avuncular officer looked me over and advised me to go back to the States and finish college. “You will be more valuable to us if you complete your education,” he said. I took his advice, graduated, returned to Israel and signed up.
The avuncular officer, it turned out, was mistaken about the military value of a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. I was not exactly a force multiplier. And I can’t say that the army made a man out of me. But the three years I served gave me a new insight into Israel: It was a real country.
Socialist Zionism educated my generation of Israelis to see their country as a “light unto the nations,” a goal which, if taken seriously, inevitably set them up for disillusion, frustrated moralizing and eventual cynicism. Religious Zionism taught its children that the Jews, as “God’s Chosen People,” had a duty to speed the day of messianic redemption — another mission impossible that left its believers in a state of permanent hyper-expectation. Fortunately, most Israelis were not infused with such grandiose ideals. They tend to be pragmatic, materialistic, skeptically patriotic, occasionally excitable but generally inclined toward optimism.
I confess there have been times when my own optimism has been tested. The Arab surprise attack of 1973 caused even Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to publicly fear the country’s existence. In the 1980s there was 500 percent inflation, which some economists called a death spiral. After the 1995 murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, even optimists questioned the country’s democratic equilibrium. And the Palestinian intifada that broke out in 2000 brought dire warnings about the invincibility of suicide bombing.
Each time, Israel proved reassuringly durable, flexible and capable of learning from experience. An enduring peace with Egypt emerged from the 1973 war. Triple-digit inflation birthed a recovery program that has become an international model. The aftermath of Rabin’s murder was a study in democratic continuity during a period of national trauma. The intifada allowed Israel to demonstrate that terrorism can be effectively contained.
Obviously, Israel has flaws. It suffers from economic inequities, ethnic and religious tensions, endemic political corruption, and an electoral system that gives inordinate power to theocratic parties. It needs to do more to integrate its Arab citizens. The future of the West Bank awaits a decision. Iran is a dangerous enemy.
Yet the country flourishes. It is incomparably better than the Israel of 1967 — bigger, richer, smarter, safer, freer, culturally sophisticated, ethnically diverse, tolerant and politically mature. Complaining is a national sport here, but the United Nations annual Global Happiness Survey puts Israelis in 11th place, one behind Sweden, three ahead of the U.S.
I don’t generally credit UN statistics, but this one seems plausible. Certainly, it reflects my own feelings. Fifty years ago I bet my life and my future on a small, poor, puzzling and beleaguered country. Today I would happily double down, and I am deeply grateful to my 20-year-old self for taking the plunge.