Hope, Beauty, and Bus Lanes in Tel Aviv
I'm standing behind a Brazilian oak dais in the Einav Cultural Center rotunda, where the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council meets monthly, speechifying for priority bus lanes. The council chairwoman, Yael Dayan, sits to my right, admonishing me, in her harsh smoker's growl, to shut up and sit down. The mayor, Ron Huldai, sits to my left, scolding in a stage whisper: "You are a disgrace. I expected integrity from a university professor but you have none. You bring shame to your profession, your family, your city. You have no honesty; you are a populist, a demagogue." I keep my eyes pinned to the text of my speech, but stumble on the words. My tongue is fat and my mouth dry. I am frantic and exhausted, and running through my mind is, "I'm being trash-talked by the mayor of Tel Aviv . . ." and then, with self-pity, "How did I ever get here?"
This wasn't the first time I asked myself that question. Twenty-six years ago, fresh out of Swarthmore College, I enlisted in the Israeli infantry and three months later found myself trudging through Sidon, Lebanon at dusk, carrying a gun I could barely shoot, following orders in a language I could scarcely speak, in a war I could hardly understand for a cause I could hardly remember. All at once nothing around me, nothing in the life I had only just then chosen for myself, made any sense to me anymore. "How did I ever get here?" I said on that first night over the border, my breath fogging the frigid December air.
These two stories bracket my adult life. What brought me to Israel in 1983 was politics, or some fancy notion of it that I'd gotten in college. I was desperate to wrench myself from the predictable path I was on—another American Jew destined to be professor of something somewhere—and I knew that to remake myself I needed to be elsewhere. People make their societies, I figured, and societies make their people. Athenians made Athens, Aristotle had written, and Athens made Athenians. Israel was a place that I could mold, and it was a place I reckoned I wouldn't mind being molded by. The earliest Jewish pioneers to Palestine had a slogan for this: Anu banu Artza li-vnot u-lehibanot bah ("We've come to the Land to build and be built by it"). I joined a group moving to Israel from the United States that described its aims in a pamphlet mimeographed onto card stock: