What I Learned about Texas and the U.S. after 14 Years in Israel
I moved back to Texas to escape the political tumult of the Middle East — only to find chaos at home.
The morning-after shock in my city was palpable, the silence in some circles deafening. Crestfallen liberals wandered the streets of their self-imposed bubble, refusing to accept the election results from the night before. Those inside the bubble called it an “upset victory,” though those on the outside hardly saw it that way.
I’m talking, of course, about the Israeli elections in March 2015, when Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election by a wide margin, despite polls that for weeks projected a victory for the center-left bloc. It was a clear repudiation of the media, “the elites” (never mind that the right wing runs the country) and everyone on my Facebook wall — most of them Tel Aviv liberals and journalists — who were all but writing the epitaph for the Netanyahu era.
That election has been on my mind ever since November 9, when Trump’s victory had Austin looking more like Tel Aviv than ever before. I’m an Israeli American born and raised in Austin. This summer, after 14 years in Tel Aviv, I moved back to my hometown with my wife and daughters, returning to a country that for the first time since I’d left had started to seem more volatile than Israel.
The previous year had seen stabbing and shooting attacks on a near-daily basis in Israel, with many likening it to a third intifada. Meanwhile, during our last few months abroad, a terror attack at an Orlando nightclub killed 50 people, a sniper in Dallas murdered five police officers and the news coming from the States was dominated by a nasty, explosive presidential campaign unlike any I could remember. Both countries were dealing with serious security threats and a poisonous public discourse, but something about the United States seemed more unstable, more personal, like a country going to war with itself.
Despite the very real concern of many American Jews about the policies of the Trump administration and the anti-Semitism of the so-called alt-right, his election has been celebrated by countless Israelis who are fed up with the Obama administration and its perceived anti-Israel bias. This has become far more pronounced since the United States abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote on December 23 that declared Israeli settlements illegal, including Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, site of the Old City and the Western Wall.
Enter Trump to declare himself the savior of Israel, manning the ramparts with his Twitter salvos. He was joined by a chorus of conservatives condemning the U.N. and the Obama administration, and vowing to repair ties they say were torn asunder by Obama over the past 8 years.
There was Ted Cruz, who sponsored the “Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act” and said recently that Obama has had a vicious “vendetta against the Jewish state.” (This was days after he called Obama and Kerry “relentless enemies of Israel.”) A day later, Mike Pence condemned the U.N. in a tweet in which he referred to Israel as “our most cherished ally,” as the Republican-led House of Representatives voted 342-80 in favor of a resolution condemning the Security Council decision. This all came after Trump tapped his personal bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, a man who has called the left-wing pro-Israel group J Street kapos, and has vowed to move the embassy from the Tel Aviv seaside to Jerusalem. (The chance that a real estate guy like Trump would give up beachfront property seems remote, but the issue is nonetheless highly volatile, a Rubicon no U.S. leader has yet been willing to cross.)
Trump and Netanyahu have grown close, not only to repudiate Obama but also because they are two kindred spirits whose style and methods have much in common. Netanyahu has made attacking and defaming the media an art form. He uses his Facebook and Twitter accounts as a ready channel for poisonous attacks on the “elites in Tel Aviv” and the Israeli left (a feeble, almost inconsequential shell of its former self). He rails repeatedly against Israel’s Arab citizens, drawing dividends on Election Day for his attacks on Israel’s largest, weakest minority. Both have found a vital patron in casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and have made improving ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin a priority.
In my years living in Israel, I’ve seen the Jewish state repeatedly used as a talking point by countless American politicians, in particular by conservatives, who have gone all-in on a hardline Zionism that sees little if any room for compromise. This approach is not only based on evangelical beliefs and conservative ideology, but is also a means to weaken Jewish support for the Democratic Party and label the Obama administration as anti-Israel. Attempts to “politicize” Israel have certainly been helped in no small part by Secretary of State John Kerry’s bumbling, hapless Middle East diplomacy and he and Obama’s failed foreign policy in the region.
Though both Texas and Israel have no shortage of guns and religion, the conservative fascination with the Jewish state is arguably ironic considering that the country’s domestic social policies would horrify your average conservative. Israel has universal health care (including state-subsidized abortions) and extremely strict gun control. Gays can serve openly in the military, and Islamic Sharia courts are recognized by the state for civil issues. There’s also the aggressive, powerful and corrupt organized labor unions that routinely shut down the country’s airports, schools, ports, trains — you name it.
Support for any of these domestic policies would be enough to kill the prospects of any politician seeking statewide office in Texas, but they aren’t enough to stop the likes of Sid Miller or Ted Cruz from hitching their wagon to the Israeli right wing.
Unabashed support for Israel and the Netanyahu government is a proven way to burnish your conservative credentials and your opposition to the growing antipathy toward Israel among progressives and the far-left branch of the Democratic Party. It’s a billboard showing that you aren’t afraid to say “radical Islam,” that you believe racial profiling is central to counter-terrorism, that walls are always an answer, and that you don’t buy into the post-colonial mindset of the left.
In Israel in the Obama years, the public discourse surrounding the American president often resembled that of Fox News or conservative talk radio. I heard countless times that Obama is a Muslim, was born in Kenya, is an anti-Semite, or simply, a moron. There’s little hope disproving any of these, and with Trump (and Netanyahu) conservatives in Israel and beyond have a champion of the post-fact, drive-by allegation school of politics.
As Inauguration Day approaches, those progressives who didn’t leave for Canada (or the Israeli ones who didn’t move to Berlin, the Valhalla of Tel Aviv hipsters) stand to face four years or more of infuriating rhetoric and regressive policy shifts. For years, Israeli progressives have met each Netanyahu outrage with snark, hot takes and really great think pieces.
Like in America, the Israeli left has the memes; the right has the government.
In both countries, the majority would potentially vote for an alternative to their current leadership and centrists could again seize control of the agenda, if a viable alternative emerges. This possibility seems perhaps a bit stronger, as a major corruption scandal and police investigation involving Netanyahu has broken in the Israeli press.
One thing’s for certain: The idea that returning to the United States would mean a quiet, boring break from the political tumult of the Middle East doesn’t seem like such a sure bet anymore.
[Photo: Tel Aviv, Israel. Credit: Flickr/visitisrael]