I love America. I always say that you can take me out of America, but you can’t take America out of me. A friend once said to me with surprise that I know more about the current politics in America than most people who live there. That’s why people don’t understand how I could move away to live in Israel and how if I live here why I do still care so much about what happens in America.
Do you want to know why that it is? Of course you do! That’s why you are still reading this. But first some background.
I grew up in a typical suburban Conservative Jewish family. We went to shul regularly and had Shabbat dinner every week, but we were nowhere near orthodox. My parents had a serious Jewish education when they were kids growing up in Brooklyn, so they wanted one for their children too. So we were sent to school at the local Orthodox day school where they taught us all about the history of Israel and Zionism. In the summer we went to Jewish camps where we were taught all about how important it is to support Israel. There were even Israelis on the staff who came to America every summer just to help us feel connected to Israel. And every summer we had an Israel day where the camp was made up to be Israel and we ate falafel. Israel, Israel, Israel, did I say Israel enough? Well now you know how it felt growing up.
At the same time, in both school and summer camp, we were taught to respect America and its history because of what it had done for us – the Jews. Yes there was always anti-Semitism in America. But it was a safe haven for our grandparents who had come over from Russia where there were pogroms. And if they had stayed there we would have been forced to live under the Communist Soviet Union. And, most importantly, America always had complete freedom of religious practice from its inception.
So to be a good American Jew was to love and honor America for it is and for what it stands, while also admiring and respecting Israel and Israelis for what they are and what they do.
So to be a good American Jew is to have dual loyalties. No not divided loyalties, dual loyalties.
I certainly understand why non-Jewish Americans see this as a contradiction. They may be hyphenated Americans, but they bear no real loyalties to countries like Italy or Ireland. It’s when I hear American Jews criticize this that I get angry.
You see, my dear readers, over the years it has been the Jews who have questioned my personal status. People who I grew up with have been shocked to learn that I have dual citizenship. They ask: “How can you keep your American citizenship if you adopted foreign citizenship?” “How can you still be allowed to vote for President by absentee ballot?” “But you served in a foreign military?” And no they never ask, “why does Federal law still require you to file a tax return every year when you live abroad?”
Now I know that the tone of voice matters when people speak so allow me to clarify. These things are never said out of surprise that the American government allows this to be, rather out of disdain that a person would keep his American citizenship after having moved to Israel.
My response to that attitude is simple. Why not? Would anyone say the same of an American who moved to England, or Canada, or, dare I say it, even Sweden? It is not as if I moved to Iran or North Korea.
Then there are those who have disdain for the very concept of moving to Israel. I went to college with people like that. They seemed to feel that those of us who were planning on it were declaring that the people who do not are somehow less than committed to the Jewish people. “I can be a good Jew in America too,” they would say. Well, being a good Jew has nothing to do with it. And I never criticize the people who don’t come here. Their families are in America and I can’t blame anyone who cannot put up with the Israeli mentality and rudeness on a daily basis.
There is another attitude among American Jews that I find to be equally shameful. It goes something like this: “After all that our community has sacrificed and worked hard to create so that you could have the benefit of a Jewish education and a strong Jewish community, how can you just abandon it for Israel?” I am always touched when I hear this one because it implies that somehow I, Gil Tanenbaum, am so important that my continued presence in the American Jewish community would make a difference. It also betrays a hidden truth: American Jews love and support Israel because they need it to exist just in case…
My answer is usually, “then why did you make learning about Israel, especially respect and admiration for the IDF, such an integral part of our educations?”
The answer, of course, is a simple one. The Holocaust. After Israel’s independence in 1948, and especially after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel became central to Jewish education in America. Whether in a full day Jewish school, an afternoon Hebrew school, in a Jewish youth group or summer camp, Israel and its continued struggle just to exist, was pivotal to our educations.
In this was Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Ha’Am, were proven right. He did not expect that all Jews would go to live in Israel, but that the new Jewish State would become the center of a resurgence in Jewish education and community life throughout the world.
On the eve of the Six Day War American Jews feared a catastrophe. When it was over, they were jubilant. A combination of changes brought by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and Israel’s success helped lead to a complete change in the attitudes of the American Jewish community by the 1970s. For example, there was a time when you would not see anyone wearing a yarmulke in public, let alone at the office. Now just take a peek inside any Manhattan corporate law firm.
Then there was the famed Raid on Entebbe, which actually occurred on July the 4th. I was only six years old at the time, but I remember it vividly. America was celebrating its bicentennial in 1976 as the news came through about the successful rescue of the hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda. (If you don’t know the story, look it up.) I don’t remember hearing anything about the hostage situation before the rescue, just that my parents and their friends turned from celebrating the Fourth to celebrating the Israeli commandoes who executed the operation.
It seemed like every American, still reeling from the trauma of Vietnam, was in awe of the Israeli military and its capabilities. In school, the next year, the raid was used as yet another tool for educating us about Israel. The teachers stressed how the hijackers had separated the Jewish hostages from the others and then let the non-Jews go free. They compared it to what the Germans did to Jews in the Holocaust.
A few years later, at Camp Ramah in Nyack as a camper, we put on a special “recreation” of the raid at the annual dance fair. This was decidedly not a dance, but a performance where we played the roles of hostages, hostage takers and Israeli commandoes. They even made up a prop to look like the back of a plane that opened letting the “soldiers” jump out onto the stage to rescue the hostages.
There are many more example, of course. Such as synagogues placing an Israeli flag alongside the American flag.
Yet somehow, American Jews look perplexed when they see Americans move to Israel.
A man whose son also moved here summed it up best. At a lunch on Rosh Hashanah a few years back he said ironically, “We send you to Jewish schools where they teach you all about Zionism and Israel. We send you to Jewish camps where they teach you all about Zionism and Israel. We send you to Jewish youth groups where you learn all about Zionism and Israel, and how do you repay us? You move to Israel.”
Israelis seem to be the same way. They tend to say to Americans, “what are you crazy? You gave up living in America to come here?” This after always telling American Jewish tourists how they should feel guilty about not coming to live in Israel.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? Americans who live in Israel were not forced out of their homes. We were not expelled from our countries like the Sephardic Jews who were thrown out of Arab nations after Israel’s Independence. We did not flee a country rife with conflict and famine as the Ethiopian Jews did. Nor did we rush to leave a place where we were persecuted for centuries for anywhere as else just as the doors finally opened and out of fear of what kind of government might take power next, as the Jews of the former Soviet Union did.
No. We came to Israel knowing that we would have a lower standard of living and with more limited career options. We came knowing that Israel does not have the same level of personal liberties as America (e.g. police can demand identification at any time, criminal defendants have fewer rights, security laws mean less right to privacy, etc.) And knowing that Israeli bureaucracy is so absurd it makes any American better appreciate their local DMV. We came not out of fear for ourselves, nor out of a desire to have a more comfortable lifestyle.
We came to Israel because we were taught to do so. We were told our whole lives about the importance of Israel. We chose to literally put our money where our mouths are. So whenever someone asks me, “why did you do it,” with that tone of voice which implies confusion or disbelief, I answer, “what you should be asking is why don’t more American Jews do it?”
Finally there is a group of Americans in Israel for whom I have nothing but disdain. They are ultra-orthodox, so called born again Jews, who hate America while they keep their citizenships and rely on money from people back there. They call America Esau, or Rome. This compares America to the greatest enemies the Jewish people have ever had. Why do they do this? Because they think that American openness to Jews is somehow part of a sinister plot to slowly assimilate Jews, have them intermarry and finally convert to Christianity.
These people are clearly hypocrites and I always make sure to brag about my American identity whenever they talk that way.
America IS a great nation. It gave the world its first true democracy. You can be cynical and talk about slavery and no vote for women, but that was the way of the world back then. The masses had the right to vote for local government and Congress from America’s beginning. In England that did not happen until after World War I. And to this day America has the broadest definition of personal rights and liberties of any nation in the world. The First Amendment means that even racists and Nazis have a right to free speech and that is a good thing. It is harder to convict someone of a crime than anywhere else in the world and that is a good thing.
Being an American is about being free, and celebrating freedom and respecting all human dignity. Even – and especially – when the people in power there do not.
Therefore, I have no problem identifying as an American who lives in Israel, an American-Israeli. I am an American first. Heart and soul. So I proudly celebrate the Fourth of July every year. And I still follow baseball, even the Mets.
So let the world join in the celebration. Remember the shot fired at Lexington and Concord, the Shot Heard Round the World. If you are free? If you truly do enjoy liberty, then you too should celebrate America.
Now repeat after me:
My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!
My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.
Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.
Our fathers’ God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King!