Opinion » Viewpoint

Over There

For an American Jew, the conflict's pangs are inescapable.

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There is a story about a Jewish man who is shipwrecked on a tropical island. After a handful of years, he is finally rescued. But before leaving the island for good, the rescue officers request a tour of the structures he has built. They pass living quarters, a laundry, a kitchen, a gym, and even a little synagogue.

At the end of the complex, they come to another building that looks identical to the house of worship they just passed. So one officer asks the man about the building. He explains with a smile: "Oh, that's the synagogue I don't attend."

This story speaks a great deal to the relationship of American Jews to Israel. For most, it is someplace they could live if they wanted to. But they choose not to -- and yet still feel the need to preserve the choice.

In 1967, the Six Day War marked Israel's stunning military victory over a number of its hostile Arab neighbors. While the Holocaust was still a fresh memory to the world, the victory was a remarkable public-relations coup. Israel would endure. Jerusalem was reunified. The new borders were deemed to be more defensible. Tourism and immigration boomed.

Young people would watch the film Exodus and tap into the idealism that would lead to making aliyah, or pilgrimage. Who can ever forget the final burial scene as the freedom fighters jump onto trucks and head toward battle? Perhaps, to one degree or another, every young American Jew has fantasized about volunteering in the Israeli army.

A Jew who opts to experience Israel finds an unparalleled sense of perspective about the role he or she might play in the continuation of a very lengthy saga.

As a college graduate in the mid-1970s, I made my way to Israel. I volunteered on a kibbutz in the Judean Hills. I once delivered a candy shipment to a massive military base, passing through a maze of beige uniforms and Quonset huts. It was my golden opportunity to "see if the shoe fits." In my case, the truth is, it did not.

I had to come to grips with how much harder life was there compared to the material comforts back home. I also was made acutely aware by other international visitors how little love there is for America in the rest of the world. Curiously enough, my travels abroad actually galvanized my identity as an American.

Twenty years later, in 1994, before the intifada began, I returned to Israel for two weeks with my new bride. We found time amid our touring to visit the kibbutz. The factory had been closed after being sold to a food conglomerate. They turned the facilities into an adult daycare for the aging pioneers who had fled Europe from the Nazis. My sponsor from decades ago was recovering from a stroke there. Menachem's memory was still sharp. While the video camera was running, I had the chutzpah to ask him if his life had turned out the way he thought it would.

In our society, there is a stigma attached to conflict and especially prolonged conflict without a visible end. Our daughter has entered her school years. We realize that there is a chance that she will never experience Israel in relatively peaceful times, as we did.

I still hear of local young Jewish adults flirting with the idea of service to Israel, but the times have clearly changed. What parents can encourage putting their child in harm's way when other alternatives exist? Yet, because of ideological diversity within the Jewish community here, local responses to the current crisis will vary dramatically.

After the lessons of 9/11, we should be able to all agree on one thing -- the haunting realization that it is pure folly to relegate these unrelenting conflicts to something that is merely happening "over there."

Bill Steinberg is a certified financial planner at Kelman-Lazarov. His writing frequently appears in the Flyer.

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