Israel in the Spotlight

Those Walled In

What makes an Israeli? A peculiar mix of joie de vivre, arrogance, aggressiveness, fear, claustrophobia, plus a whole lot more.Living in Israel is one continual encounter with the Israeli character, stereotypically labeled as the “sabra,” the cactus that is hard and prickly on the outside, but mushy and sweet on the inside. But the Israeli character is far more complex than the stereotype.

Of course, on the one hand, there is no such thing as the Israeli national character – after all, a nation is composed of individuals, and each individual is unique. And yet – somehow – there is a sort of character, a personality that a country has. Or at least there is the character that people project on a nation.

Amos Elon, Israeli journalist and intellectual, wrote a review of “Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse,” by Sylvain Cypel that appeared in the New York Review of Books. In the article Elon wrote “The original French title of the book, Les Emmurés-those walled in-better expresses the peculiar mixture of joie de vivre, arrogance, provincialism, aggressiveness, fear of another Holocaust, and claustrophobia that has struck foreign observers and also some Israelis for years.”

I thank my American friend Nick for bringing Elon’s quote to my attention. It makes an excellent launch pad for an exploration of the Israeli character.

I like Elon’s description. It’s pretty accurate. Israelis definitely have joie de vivre – polls show that despite everything, Israelis overall are happier with their lot than most other nationalities, including Americans.

Arrogance, well yes, most Israelis are convinced they are the best and they aren’t shy about letting you know it either. Not that they brag, rather they tend to put others down, leaving themselves in the up position. I have a friend who is an airline pilot for Southwest who desperately wants to make aliyah – yet he can’t get a job with El Al because even though he has thousands of hours of experience flying airliners for major American carriers, El Al hires IDF helicopter pilots with 1,000 hours before they hire him. Why? Because of a combination of that arrogance, the Israeli Air Force way is clearly the best for everything, and the “clubbishness” that goes with this superiority complex.

For the most part, I don’t think I’d characterize Israelis as provincial, however. They have a very international outlook. The economy is driven by exports; Israel is a very small country, so almost everyone takes vacations elsewhere – Turkey and Czechoslovakia are popular as being not too far away and relatively inexpensive. Even people of modest means travel internationally.

As to aggressive, well, this is a trait for which Israelis are famous. One of the challenges of getting by in Israel is that if you are not aggressive you are perceived as a “freier”, which is a Yiddish term for sucker.

The next trait on Elon’s list, fear of another Holocaust, is also real. But remember, just because you are paranoid, does not mean that they are NOT out to get you. Ahmadinejad may be a nut case, but he is a nut case who is the head of state of a country.

By all accounts enriching uranium is the “hard” part of making nuclear weapons. Even if their nuke program is on the shelf (Israeli intelligence is not convinced it is) it’s very easy to restart. Oh, and that does acknowledge that they HAD a nuclear weapons program, doesn’t it? Let’s see, what shelf did I leave those plans on? And Ahmadinejad has publicly proclaimed that Israel should be wiped off the map. Wouldn’t you be a little paranoid?

Hamas also calls for the destruction of Israel. Would they use a nuke if they were able to get their hands on one? I certainly wouldn’t make any bets. And of course many Israelis visit the cemetery on Memorial Day to mourn the loss of loved ones in wars in 1947, 1967, and 1973 when the Arabs did try to destroy us, big time, not to mention two Lebanon wars, two intifadas, etc., etc. We have good reason to fear, although, thank God, overall I think we’re in better shape on the security front than we were in 1973.

Claustrophobia, yes, that comes with living in a very small country. Israel is more or less the size of New Jersey. If you lived in New Jersey and on one side the borders with New York and Connecticut were sealed, and the border with Pennsylvania was one you could technically cross, but it didn’t feel particularly safe to do so because people there didn’t like you, you too would probably feel a little claustrophobic.

But Elon’s description of the Israeli character is incomplete. There are a few things you have to add:

Israelis really care about each other. There is a “we’re all in this mess together” attitude; there is a feeling of being part of a large extended family that is stronger than among Jews in the Diaspora. If you want to put it down, you might call it clannishness. But anyone who wants to can join the clan. OK, it’s a little more involved than say putting on a kilt, but you can still join. It’s nice to have that feeling of belonging to a group with shared values, even if we can’t agree on exactly what all the values are or how to interpret them!

In Israel we enjoy an attitude of living in a frontier. Maybe some of the arrogance comes from living in a place that the rest of the world treats as important. There is more terrorism in Sri Lanka, more people are dying in Kenya, human rights abuses are far worse in any country within 300 miles, not to mention places like China, and yet we’re on the front page of the Western papers every day while those others places often get scant notice. Makes us feel important. But more than that, it makes us feel like we are a part of something important.

In short, the Israeli character is complex and interesting. One of the biggest challenges facing a new immigrant to Israel is fitting in as a part of that culture. The American character I bring with me to Israel is very different indeed than the Israel character of my new home. Can I really be an Israeli when my character is still more defined by my years as an American?

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A lonely soldier finds herself a home

Why would a nice American girl give up the comfort of home to immigrate to a foreign country and serve in a foreign army? Love of course.A few weeks ago, I came off a plane to embark on a journey based around one crazy idea – love. I made aliyah (immigration) on Valentine’s Day. That’s right, the day of love was the day that my bond for the country I had had a crush on for years was eternalized by one single act.

I made the decision to move to Israel a long time ago. It was always part of my “life plan.” I was going to finish high school and move to Israel just like my parents from South America did before me. I was going to serve in the army just like my father had done. I was going to study at Hebrew University just as my mother studied.

I never actually believed I was going to be able to do any of that. I kind of just told people that’s what I wanted to do as I applied for American universities and ignored my Sunday school Hebrew teacher when she tried to teach us a few words of Hebrew.

Last year, I entered my first year of college in the US. The entire time I was there I regretted not following my original dream.

The actual move to Israel started slowly. First I decided to go for the summer. Then, when I came in June, I decided there was no way I could go back to any US university just yet. I extended my stay for a semester.

As I began my semester at Rothberg International School at Hebrew University, I decided that it was just not enough. I couldn’t tell people when I was going back to the States. I just didn’t want to. So then my semester became a year and the year became, hopefully, a lifetime.

There have been a lot of ups and downs, and many set backs, but moving to Israel and dealing with all the annoyances that come when you immigrate somewhere new, was a “piece of cake” compared to making the decision about whether or not to serve in the Israeli army.

If I did, I would be what is known as a “Chayal Boded”, which literally translates to “lonely soldier.”

Both my parents live outside Israel and other than some distant cousin of my grandmother’s, I have no family here. Granted, both my parents lived in Israel for a significant amount of time (my father for around 13 years and my mother around six) and they have many close friends who treat me like family. I am here, and, as the IDF so beautifully puts it, lonely; therefore, I decided to serve my country through Garin Zabar.

Garin Zabar is an organization formed for lonely soldiers run by an offshoot of the Tzofim. The organization helps form units of 30 Zionist youths who make wild decisions like leaving their parents in other parts of the world to live in Israel. There are several groups from the East Coast and the West Coast of America, a religious group, and one from Israel. After they form these groups, they give four (or five) seminars to help prepare these people for the army.

In these seminars we eat, sleep, joke and try (sometimes with great difficulty) to understand the all-Hebrew lectures. Afterwards, we join a kibbutz for three months, where we are helped with everything we need to do to join the army – from initial draft dates, to tests, interviews, and all that fanatical bureaucracy, plus anything else we may encounter before the day we put on a uniform and say goodbye to our old lives.

The kibbutz becomes your home – an adoptive family.

I just got back from my first seminar. The first thing we did was sit together and introduce ourselves. In my group, there are people from Venezuela, Italy, Holland, and from all over the United States.

We talked about where we were from and how we are killing time in Israel before going to the kibbutz in August (I’m still at Hebrew University doing a year abroad program).

The last thing we did before leaving the ranch where we were staying, was talk about what we appreciated most from the seminar. All 30 of us said the same thing: we were so thankful to see that we weren’t the only people who wanted to join the army and live in Israel and that the process wouldn’t be as scary as we previously imagined.

I am nervous, and I’m not going to lie, I question my choices everyday; yet, after they gave us practice exams and practice interviews and told us that we would have a place to call our own and warm, good food to eat when we get back on the weekends, I felt at ease with my decision.

Yeah, it’s scary, but I think this is the start of a beautiful romance.

Saving hearts in Zanzibar and Tanzania

There’s an incredible high from giving children with heart problems a new life and a new heart-shaped view of Israel to take home with them.I recently returned from an incredible adventure in Africa with an Israeli humanitarian effort that not enough people are familiar with. Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) was the dream of one gifted and caring surgeon, Dr. Ami Cohen, who could not accept that so many children in the world were doomed to die for lack of medical care that we take for granted.

I was fortunate to meet Ami early in SACH’s life and joined the newly formed board. Despite Ami’s untimely death in August 2001, climbing Kilimanjaro, SACH has survived and thrived. Seventy professionals lovingly volunteer their services, in the Wolfson Hospital in Holon, Israel, and on missions abroad, where they operate, screen, train local doctors and simply save lives daily.

My latest SACH mission, to Zanzibar and Mwanza, Tanzania, and my prior trips to China and Moldova, have been some of the most intense, satisfying and heartbreaking journeys I have had the privilege to take… as well as incredible opportunities to get to know the staff who are the real heroes.

The delegation included our head of ICU, Sion, two of our pediatric cardiologists, Alona, an Israeli, and Rula, a Palestinian doctor who trained with SACH at Wolfson Hospital over the last three years, and our director, Simon and his wife, Aviva. In Zanzibar we were joined by two German cardiologists, Anne and Caroline, under the auspices of KinderHilfe Zanzibar, which sponsored the visit.

The doctors worked in pairs and at a breathtaking pace. I was the mission photographer …a job I truly enjoyed, along with clowning for the children and the parents waiting in the halls. Aviva became my able assistant clown/photographer, giving out pens and balloons and playing with the children, while I photographed her joy and theirs.

The pressure was intense and the sheer numbers of children, veil-clad women, men in western attire, who crowded the hospital hallway that served as our examining room, was at times overwhelming. Dozens of potential patients were screened. Aviva and I would provide grapes or chocolate and water to weary doctors at necessary intervals and sometimes a back rub after 12 hours on the job.

Sometimes the most memorable moments had nothing to do with the physical heart – as when Alona, an incredible doctor with immense knowledge at her fingertips, an infectious enthusiasm and a glorious smile, told a teenager who had been operated on in Israel, that she could have children…To see the first tears of joy as that young woman heard the translation of the doctor’s words was an awesome moment that I tried to capture on film… probably a second too late.

Both Rula’s and Alona’s love and caring for each child, was always visible, whether in a touch or leaning in to speak and reassure the child or the mother.

On the third day we did about 80 post-op evaluations of children who had had surgery… many in Israel. It was wonderful to see some familiar faces among the crowds and to watch them react to a brochure we had produced for a photographic exhibit now touring the world, in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday. We had a collage of hundreds of images of children treated by SACH, and parents scanned them avidly for their own children’s faces.

One of the most moving moments was when Saida arrived with her beautiful one-year-old son in her arms… to be greeted by Sion, with tears in his eyes, as he recalled the Saida who, a mere four to five years earlier, had been rushed from the plane that landed in Tel Aviv straight to the intensive care unit. To see her now, so healthy, so serene, so glowing, was truly to witness a miracle.

For the Mwanza leg of the mission, on the shores of Lake Victoria, we were joined by Livia, an Israeli cardiologist who resides in Holland. She had arranged for the donation of a portable echocardiograph which joined the one we had been loaned by GE in Israel. This was our first contact with Bugando Medical Center (built by Israelis in the late ’70s) and we screened perhaps 50 children in the two days there. I constantly photographed the children (some of whom took photos of me on my smaller camera), their parents, the staff, the incredible views of the lake and the beautiful hospital grounds.

We flew home through Addis Ababa, where we were joined by our first group of patients from Zanzibar: eight children, ranging from one to 17, accompanied by the three mothers of the youngest children and the nurse, Aziza, who had greeted us with Shabbat Shalom on the day we arrived. They were in good spirits in the face of travel delays that even wearied us experienced travelers. At long last, we arrived home, but their adventures were just beginning.

All of the children have been in the hospital for tests and preliminary treatments and one has undergone catheterization. They are incredibly brave and incredibly beautiful… It is easy to fall in love with their shining faces… and it is an incredible high to have had some small part in giving them a new life and a new heart-filled view of Israel to take home with them. And each trip makes me so aware of my own blessings, especially my three healthy children and grandson, and being able to live in Israel, where we can and do help thousands of children from across the globe to regain life.

Cedar’s Oscar loss is still our gain

Crushing high hopes that Israel might take home its first Academy Award, The Counterfeiters, an Austrian film about a master forger forced to work for Nazis in a concentration camp, won the foreign-language Oscar last Sunday.

Though disappointing to many here, the result was not entirely surprising. The Jerusalem Post film critic Hannah Brown had predicted a win for Counterfeiters,, citing the long history of Holocaust-themed films that have done well in the foreign language film category. Even Joseph Cedar, director of Israel’s entry, Beaufort, seemed to keep his hopes in check at a symposium prior to the ceremony, saying he was “happy just to have been nominated. I’m not even thinking about winning.”

After being chosen from among 65 foreign language entries, Beaufort found itself competing against four other finalists, from Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia and Austria. The winning filmmaker, Stefan Ruzowitzky, also focused on a Jewish theme – the moral dilemma facing a group of Jewish concentration camp inmates who were forced to turn out massive amounts of forged currency to undermine the Allied war effort or face the deadly consequences of refusing.

In his acceptance speech, Ruzowitzky acknowledged some of the Jewish movie directors of his country’s past.

“There have been some great Austrian filmmakers working here, thinking of Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger, most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis, so it sort of makes sense that the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar is about the Nazis’ crimes.”

In an earlier interview with JTA, Ruzowitzky went further. “My grandparents on both sides were Nazis, or Nazi sympathizers, so I felt a special responsibility to deal with the Holocaust era,” he said. “I felt an equal responsibility not to exercise moral judgment on the Jews who collaborated in [the forgery].”

Though Israel’s hopes were dashed by The Counterfeiter’s win, Cedar’s star won’t suffer as a result. Earning an Oscar nomination has elevated him to a new status – he’s become a sort of mascot for the country, not unlike Gal Fridman, whose Olympic windsurfing win in Athens made him the man of the year in 2004. Beaufort’s nomination, Israel’s first after a 23 year hiatus, makes Cedar the hottest director on the scene here.

Of course, Beaufort’s ,nomination wasn’t a shoe-in either. In September, the Israel Film Academy picked Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit as top picture of the year, making it the country’s automatic entry in the Oscar race. But in a semi-expected upset, the film was disqualified for breaching academy guidelines. More than half of the dialogue in such films must be in the country’s own language, and The Band’s Visit mostly featured characters communicating in broken English. The technicality gave runner-up Beaufort its big chance.

Cedar proved his worth on his first two films (Time of Favor and Campfire were both voted Israel’s top films in 2001 and 2004, respectively). And interest and faith in his success encouraged more than a few celebrities to book flights to Los Angeles.

Beaufort’s Oscar party at LA’s Avalon club included guests like Israeli pop idol Ninette Tayeb and more than a dozen Israeli television reporters and hosts, among them Eli Yatzpan and news anchors Aharon Barnea and Gil Tamary. Hosted by the Israeli consulate, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and the StandwithUs organization, the party was also attended by 10 Sderot teenagers, who were in LA to put on a benefit concert in support of their hometown. Over 350 people rallied for the film at the Avalon, but seemed to take the loss well. “We have shown that Israel can make very good movies,” Beaufort actor Eli Eltonyo told the cheering crowd, “and we will prove it again next time.”

Given the much-hyped renaissance in the Israeli movie industry over the past few years, there is no reason not to believe that an Oscar win shouldn’t be expected in the near future. And with Cedar’s track record, there’s a good chance he may be the one receiving it.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post. The Post’s Los Angeles correspondent Tom Tugend contributed to this report.

My friend, Tom Lantos

Throughout his distinguished political career, Californian congressman and former Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, was firmly committed to Israel and the Jewish people.Tom Lantos was truly one of a kind in the US Congress. His passing is an incalculable loss not only for his constituents, the US Congress, and the United States, his adopted country, but for Israel.

I first befriended Tom before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1980. Even back then, I was impressed by his incredible life story – surviving the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the Holocaust, coming to the US on an academic scholarship, earning a doctorate in economics, and making a name for himself in California.

I first encountered Tom’s commitment to Israel and the Jewish people in 1976 when he called on me at AIPAC to discuss the Democratic presidential primary elections. At the time, almost all pro-Israel Democrats were, for good reasons, backing Henry M. (“Scoop”) Jackson. After our meeting, Tom wisely decided to help Sen. Frank Church because of his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Over the next three decades during his 27 years in Congress, Tom’s contributions to Israel and the Jewish people were unparalleled. It was not only his considerable intellect and unique personal story that differentiated him from his 434 House colleagues, but the way he approached them.

Tom was definitely Old World when it came to his manners and charm. He didn’t keep a desk in his office so that he could treat his guests as if they were in his own living room. Unfailingly polite and attentive, he treated his Democratic and Republican colleagues with equal respect, forging strong bipartisan bonds that endured even after partisan rancor became the order of the day on Capitol Hill.

And then there was the energy and devotion he applied to all of his causes, and the relationships he cultivated with foreign leaders, which culminated in his ascension to the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Tom was thus able to influence policies affecting Israel positively more than any other single Member of Congress. For example, his strong working and personal relationship with former Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, now ranking Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, led to the kind of effective bipartisan legislative actions that are rarely seen in Washington’s present acrimonious environment.

Prior to that, he was able to work harmoniously with the late Republican chairman Henry Hyde, someone whose background and views on a host of issues were so different than Tom’s. During this period, Hyde essentially left one particular geographic area up to Tom.

Tom’s activities involving Middle East policies and US-Israel relations dovetailed beautifully with the outstanding leadership he provided in championing human rights. He founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to highlight abuses worldwide, taking a leadership role and thereby increasing his credibility on Israel-related matters.

Not only did he highlight anti-Semitism, but genocide and, more recently, Darfur. In this cause he enlisted his wife, Annette, who worked on human rights issues on a daily basis, and had her own desk in his offices. But whether it was Tom’s closeness to Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or his intimate conversations with President George W. Bush, Tom’s overriding passion has always been his support for a secure Israel as being not only in the best geopolitical interests of the United States, but also one of our nation’s highest moral callings.

Tom’s admirers spanned both the American political spectrum from Left to Right, and also the often-fractious organized American Jewish community. This is quite a remarkable accomplishment considering the differences of opinion (and animosity), which unfortunately exist today as Israel engages in the latest peace process, and confronts threats from Hamas and Hizbullah on its borders, and the growing menace of Iran.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has stated that, “the State of Israel owes a great debt to Lantos.” She is certainly correct. However, much of the good that Tom accomplished in his 27 years in Congress to assist Israel’s well-being has gone unrecorded. Very few are fully aware of all of Tom’s efforts behind the scenes to benefit Israel and the Jewish people.

On a personal level, I will miss our wide-ranging conversations, where we exchanged information, probed each other’s views and even engaged in the latest political gossip, of which there was always an abundance on Capitol Hill. But the backdrop invariably was how it all affected Israel.

It was during one of our meetings last spring when Tom suggested that my 16-year-old daughter intern in his office last summer. I thought she might be too young to take full advantage of this opportunity. As it turned out, it was an experience she will always treasure. It gave her the opportunity to be close to a great man, and an opportunity which I hope she takes advantage of later on in her life.

My friend, Tom Lantos, was someone who was truly able to make a difference. That is why he will be missed by so many, and particularly those of us who had the privilege of knowing and working with him.