I have a number of friends who periodically donate their Facebook updates and Twitter tweets to representing Israel by highlighting wonderful things Israel has done in its history. The intention, undoubtedly, is to counter the negative things said about Israel in the media and in public discussion, with some positive "press" on Israel. From time to time, I am able to even learn some contribution that Israel has made to the world from these postings.
But often I find myself reading these updates and thinking about the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who thinks that every idea and even every word originated in Greece, and wondering whether we might be trying to do the same thing: drawing lines from every new idea directly to Israel or to Judaism or Jewish history. And I worry that it may be perceived by the young generations of Jews as sounding just a bit too much like propaganda.
Here's the thing: I love Israel. Grew up with it ingrained, and fell in love all over again when I first spent time there, and on every subsequent trip. And I suppose that, as a committed Jew and lover of Israel, I do have some obligation to represent Israel not only within my Jewish community but beyond.
At the same time, I worry about the classical messages that Israel-oriented organizations tend to repeat: how Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, how it alone stands between the Islamic and Arab extremism and the Western world, and the tremendous contributions that Israel has made in areas such as technology, medicine, sciences, and agriculture. All true, but the communication of these contributions often sound forced into the conversation.
When communicating about Israel and Israeli life, especially in educating the young generation, it is important that we are not only positive, but also authentic. For too long, American Jews learned about kibbutz life, without learning that only a small minority of Israelis lived on kibbutz, believed that Israel was a country of religiously committed (or at least knowledgeable) Jews, when in fact that was not the case for the majority. We kept promoting pictures of Israeli kids around campfires in farming communities, ignoring the fact that the major centers of Israeli life -- Tel Aviv, Haifa, and even Jerusalem -- looked nothing like that. And in many cases, it was Israeli-born teachers living in America who supported the myths. As one shaliach reminded a group of teachers, most Israeli-born American Jewish teachers hadn't lived in Israel for 20 years or more. It would be like teaching about America today based on life in America in the 1980's, before the age of the internet.
My thinking is that young people -- Jewish or not -- want to know about the real Israel, not simply that of apologists. And that real Israel is a fascinating place; a place of contradictions, of excitement, of occasional absurdities. It is a country that is a blend of east and west, Ashkenazi and Sefaradi, Jew and Moslem and Christian, modern and ancient.
Israelis have never been afraid of looking themselves in the mirror and appreciating themselves and the incredible society and country that they have created in a short period of time, yet also being able to be amused at themselves at the same time.
So here, dedicated to those who have posted their own lists of things to appreciate Israel for, is my list of....
Did You Know...?
- That Dana Internationale, an Israeli transsexual, represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest, and won the competition on behalf of the country.
- That two huge statues of Elvis overlook the hills outside Jerusalem at the Elvis Inn, an Elvis Presley-themed diner near Neve Ilan and Abu Ghosh, and is the site of an annual competition of Elvis impersonators.
- That the record for the largest bowl of hummus ever produced was recently set, by a team of Arabs and Jews working together to fill a satellite dish full of hummus in Abu Ghosh
- That over 30 political parties were listed on the ballot of the last Israeli election, because, after all, every Jew is not only entitled to his/her opinion, but to backing said opinion up with a political party.
- That members of the Alei Yarok party (committed to legalization of marijuana) and the Nitzolei HaShoah party (survivors of the Nazi Holocaust) ran a slate of candidates in a recent Israeli election, perhaps the oddest political partnership in history.
- That Israel doesn't get baseball, and should stop trying.
- That Israeli model Bar Refaeli graced the covers of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and the (as yet) only HEEB magazine swimsuit issue.
- That Gene Simmons of Kiss was born Chaim Witt of Haifa
- That Natalie Portman was born Natalie Hershlag of Jerusalem
And of course, added to these, that fact that Israeli IS the only democracy in the Middle East and has made tremendous contributions to technology, medicine, sciences and agriculture.