It’s appropriate that I write this blog on the eve of America’s midterm elections. As my country prepares to pivot, so do I. Tomorrow, I board a flight to say goodbye. For now?
I find myself feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Excitement because I think Democrats will take back the House of Representatives. And if it’s truly a blockbuster night, even the Senate. I think Donald Trump needs a wake-up call that he can’t govern this country alone.
Anxiety because I worry about the future of the Democratic Party and what it means for this nation. The extremes of the Democratic Party, as best represented in the Trump-like antics of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Someone who on the surface level, I agree with 80% of the time. But who takes her positions- and most importantly her rhetoric- to extremes.
Ms. Cortez, almost certainly to win her election tomorrow, supports a variety of policies that are fairly standard in Israel and Western Europe. Socialized medicine, environmental protections, affordable higher education, and civil liberties for LGBT people.
The problem is she takes public policy and turns it into a bombastic crusade in which anyone who disagrees with her is the enemy. And in which purity Trumps all.
Ms. Cortez compared the threat of climate change to that of Nazi Germany. She supports impeaching Donald Trump without considering the consequences to her party or the national discourse. Or the potential counter-reaction of angry armed Americans who will doubtless double down on hunting down minorities.
She criticized Israel for having “massacred” innocent Palestinians in Gaza- without showing any understanding of the fact that many of them were armed Hamas members. And that while all killing is a travesty and some of the deaths may have been avoidable, it’s not so simple here. I’d like to see how she’d react as an 18-year-old soldier when people volley rockets and flaming kites at you and your family’s neighborhoods.
The most audacious and Trump-like aspect of this accusation is that Ms. Cortez’s response to criticism was: “I am not the expert…on this issue”. A bizarre and deeply narcissistic approach to politics. You are a future lawmaker- if you’re not an expert on an issue, you probably shouldn’t make such wild and factually incorrect claims. You sound a lot like our Tweeter-in-Chief. Shooting from the lip.
Lest you think this is an isolated incident, I found the most shocking flier walking around Berkeley. Although if you’re from the area, you won’t be surprised.
At face value, I agree with some of the flier. I would like to see more black women in politics. Minorities are perpetually underrepresented and it changes the discourse to have different people in the room making decisions.
On the other hand, this is no better than Donald Trump’s extremist rhetoric. “Abolish every jail”. “Black radical revolution”. “Justice for PALESTINE”- and the word Palestine written in Arabic. “Black ballot”.
It’s not that each of these words on their own are necessarily bad. I advocate for Palestinian human rights. I want black empowerment. I think the prison industrial complex needs reform.
But the way it’s presented is so fundamentalist. It’s a “with-me-or-against-me” rhetoric that is dangerous in and of itself. It is imbued with a fanaticism, a sense of infallibility reminiscent of a Puritan more than a public policy debate.
I don’t believe in abolishing every jail. Some people are dangerous and need to be behind bars. Not everyone can be rehabilitated and I want want serial killers and rapists off my streets. I also don’t think that any ballot should be all about one group. I don’t vote a “Jewish ballot” or a “gay ballot”- it’s exclusionary it is very phrasing. And the Palestine piece- it’s telling that there wasn’t a call for peace, nor was there a condemnation of anti-Semitism. Let alone an acknowledgment that Israel, that the Jewish people are entitled to empowerment too. Especially days after the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. I have never seen an attack so clearly demonstrate the need for a State of Israel or for solidarity with our people. Yet where are the grandiose words, the empathy for us?
We’re not on the agenda for the far left- and I feel it. I see poster after poster here in California. “Hate has no place here”. “Against hate”. “Immigrants, Muslims, LGBTs are welcome here”. But not on one single sign have I seen the word “Jew”. Out of hundreds I saw, one sign had “you are welcome here” written in Hebrew- a reminder that some people care. But if I’m honest, I leave California with a deep sense of disappointment and a feeling that most of the left doesn’t feel we are worthy of their solidarity. I am inspired by the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who came together to #ShowUpForShabbat, but I have yet to see progressive activists put us on their agenda. We are worthy of our own discussion- not just in terms of Trump, not just in terms of gun control, not just in terms of hate crimes. All of these are valid issues and related- but they are not the same. This was an anti-Semitic attack during a period of rising anti-Semitism around the world. And I expect progressive activists to step outside their comfort zone and learn about us on our own merits- not just when it’s convenient for their ideological agenda. If the attack makes them reconsider their reflexive support for Palestinians over Israel (as if one should have to choose), then I’m glad it makes them uncomfortable. Because if you’re upset about Pittsburgh, imagine what Moroccan Jews and Polish Jews feel like about thousands of Pittsburghs and having no home left to go to. That’s why Israel exists- and you need to face the fact that your society is failing to protect us. The extremes on both sides. Which is why a wise Jew will never give up on the state that is our only insurance policy.
Black-and-white thinking results in aggression and a breakdown in communication. A young Jewish student at Florida State threw chocolate milk at Republican volunteers while invoking the Pittsburgh massacre. I share her frustration at the rise of the far right and its racist and anti-Semitic elements. I also will offer some humility in saying its different analyzing this from afar than living here. I’m American, but I am not here most of the year and it’s different to physically be here. I think that as a (somewhat) outside observer, I can illuminate things that are hard for you to notice when your surroundings shadow your vision. And I bow to the fact that we live in different, overlapping existences and I recognize that you bear certain consequences more directly than me.
I will offer this advice- do not behave like the people you hate. Of all the times people have said nasty things to me (and again- I don’t know what, if anything, the Republicans said to arouse her anger), I have never considered launching my beverage at someone’s face. It’s not that I thought about it and decided not to- it just never occurred to me. Everyone has a right to their feelings- but we don’t have a right to attack people. Even people we disagree with or think are damaging society. The greatest challenge of being oppressed is not to become the oppressor in fighting back. I’m a double minority and a survivor of three decades of abuse. I get it on a gut level- it’s hard. And I hope this young woman can learn from this experience and realize that she has further poisoned debate rather than showing courage. We’ve all been impulsive students once, but it’s important to remember our actions have consequences. And I can’t imagine her behavior has made Jews any safer at a time of deep discomfort about our place in society.
Empathy is about understanding where others come from- not necessarily agreeing with them. So in that spirit, I’d like to offer this. I am American-Israeli. I feel more American in Israel and more Israeli in America. I am a hybrid. Some people share my observations, and sometimes people disagree with them. I address a mostly progressive audience because that’s part of who I am and it’s who I know best. Its whose actions hurt me the most because I care what they, what you, think. Many of my observations about extremism apply to the far right as well- it’s just that I don’t have much cachet with them. I can’t imagine they’re particularly interested in hearing the voice of a queer Jew at this point in history.
There are distinct cultural differences between Israel and America. Israelis are famously direct, Americans famously polite. Israelis will message you pretty much non-stop, Americans think you’re in love (or desperate) if you message someone the day after a date. The words we use, the emotions we feel, the way we convey them- our behavior- is deeply influenced by the culture we live in. And I live in both.
American friends expecting me to conform to American cultural norms- to always remember them- please consider that I don’t live here. I’m not an American abroad, I’m not an expat, I’m not on some jaunt or program. I’m an Israeli, an out-of-the-closet Jew running by completely different norms. And if I sometimes am too direct for you, consider my reality too. I shouldn’t (and can’t) always revert to your way of thinking because it’s hard- it’s not fair, it’s not who I am, and it’s not how I live. If you’re offended by my bluntness, I won’t always say I’m sorry- because sometimes you need to hear some straight talk. That’s my Israeliness. But I will say I never intend to hurt you and I care about what you think. Otherwise I wouldn’t write this blog.
As we sit on the eve of great change- for me personally and for America my country- I want to share my hopes. I predict Democrats will gain power this week. Not sure how much, but it will change the discourse and perhaps even bring some balance to the national debate.
The question for my progressive friends is how will you wield this power? After several years of hearing worn-out tropes from the far right, after being wounded, will you be the adult or the child? Will you govern with a gavel or a sledgehammer?
I hope you govern wisely. Yelling at people doesn’t change their opinions. Some people we can’t dialogue with- but some people are not only open to hearing your thoughts, they could teach you something too. Protect yourselves, but don’t close off your hearts entirely. And check in with yourself to see if you’re becoming the domineering person you’re fighting against.
This is something I personally wrestle with, especially in Israel. A place packed with tension. Beauty, for sure. But it’s not for nothing people are angry there- rockets are falling on my friend’s kibbutz this week. Ideologies, religions collide. This is not suburban California- it is a country the size of New Jersey with ISIS on its borders.
The best thing I can offer you is to evaluate ideas on their own merit. Just because Donald Trump likes Israel, doesn’t mean you should hate it. And just because Alexandria Cortez doesn’t like Donald Trump, doesn’t mean you should join her in hating Israel.
Find the counterexamples. When I get angry at Arabs or Muslims (I have a lot of reasons- I have a high likelihood of being killed for being gay, American, Israeli, or Jewish in their societies), I find someone who reminds me. Who reminds me that there is good too.
My friend Muhammad is a Bedouin student who just moved to Ramat Gan. He’s having a rough time- it’s not a particularly diverse city and he has experienced racism.
He told me he felt Jews only care about their own. And I got angry. I reminded him that I’m a Jew and I helped him find an apartment and adjust to life in his new home. Hours upon hours of expensive long distance calls from abroad. And that I was proud to do so.
He relented that it was politics, the TV, the blowhards who got him down. And I told him I understood- if I went by what the TV told me, I’d think all Muslims want to kill me for being a gay Jew.
And that’s where we found our common ground. We remind each other of our humanity.
He apologized, which of course I accepted. And I wrote him in Hebrew:
“No worries, bro. Remember there are Jews like me, and I’ll remember there are Muslims like you.”
His response: “Exactly!” and a kissy emoji. Which, to remind my American readers of cultural differences, is not a romantic gesture. Arab men (and a lot of straight Israelis) show a lot of intimacy towards their male friends. That in an American setting would make you think we’re heading for the sheets.
But we’re not. We’re friends. We’re each other’s alarm clock, a reminder of the people who don’t fit our preconceptions. The people who value us the way we are.
America- that’s what I hope for you November 7th. No matter what happens, no matter what you advocate for, do it with humanity. Remember the other, remember the exception.
I hope next time I visit, instead of a “black ballot” or a “white ballot”, I’ll see people talking to each other face to face. Instead of a voiceless flier slapped on a cold brick wall.
I believe in you. And I want you to succeed.