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Letter from Jerusalem

From Takoma to Tkuma: Thoughts on Independence Day

By Andrew Silow-Carroll

I can think of one great advantage to living in a foreign country and not mastering the language: quite literally you don't know what you're missing.

The airwaves and op-ed pages here are currently clogged with debate over the Israel Broadcasting Authority's series "Tkuma" (Revival, Reawakening), a multi-part documentary about Israel's first 50 years. The critics say the series is anti-Zionist and revisionist in tone, down-playing the triumphs of the founders and dwelling on their failings -- their discrimination against Sephardi immigrants, their abuse of the Palestinians, their military setbacks. Defenders say the Israeli public can handle the criticism, and that hardly a "revisionist" version of history, "Tkuma" represents the true historical version of Israel's founding shorn of mythology. Besides, what are right-wingers complaining about anyway? Criticize the founding generation and you're criticizing the Labor Party and its allies.

Sharon and I have had a very different reaction to the series, which we watch each Sunday night. Our Hebrew is improving, but we still struggle with radio and television. So that means a lot of trying to fill in the gaps, and piecing together what we think the announcers are saying by matching word and image. And in "Tkuma"'s case, that means a stream of heroic images: tanned kibbutzniks making bricks from mud and straw, elegant Tel Avivi's returning to their cafes after the "all-clear" signal, wild-haired Ben-Gurion nursing a calf at Sde Boker, Rabin and Dayan charging through the Old City on the way to the liberated Wall, Anwar Sadat beaming from the door of his jet as he visits Israel for the first time.

No doubt we're being told that the kibbutzniks are now in debt, Dayan was a womanizer, Ben-Gurion a racist, and Sadat was bringing all the good will that billions in U.S. foreign aid could buy. But for 60 glorious minutes a week we bask in blissful, Zionist ignorance, reminded why we came here in the first place and why it will be so hard to leave.

"Tkuma" and its critics perfectly reflect the mood of Israel as the jubilee approaches: If we don't know what we're missing, Israelis can't take yes for an answer. Younger than many baby boomers, Israel reacts to its 50th birthday with the regret and malaise of an old, old man or woman. On an occasion when far less deserving nations would be celebrating their miraculous accomplishments, Israel is wallowing in its disappointments -- over the peace process, over the secular-religious rift, over the "post-Zionist" drift of its young people, over the petty corruption of its ruling class. The official body set up to plan the jubilee can barely plan a meeting before its latest chairman resigns; Netanyahu declares a two-day holiday in honor of Yom HaAtzmaut and promptly incurs the wrath of municipal workers who won't be paid on the second day.

Let's face it: a lot of this gloom is understandable and even welcome -- as a Jerusalem Post columnist recently observed, it's somehow the most self-critical democracies that seem to plough on year after year, while it's the self-glorifying dictatorships that sputter into eventual infamy and obscurity.

But that's my political, intellectual side talking. My spiritual, adolescent side wants to whoop it up this Yom HaAtzmaut, before collapsing in a heap of happy tears. I want Noah, Elie, and Kayla to come away from the celebrations with images to last them a lifetime. I want my neighbors to put aside their doubts for a few days and to dance in the streets.

Does that mean avoiding the obvious, dodging reality the way we avoid the most painful messages of "Tkuma"? Perhaps. But I haven't figured out any other way of reconciling the various tensions of our almost two-year stay in Israel. On one hand, we've never felt safer or more at home; on the other, suicide bombers slaughtered our neighbors and turned our normal, day-to-day routines into gambles. I've never met a more diverse, more tolerant, more hopeful group of committed Jews than I have here, and yet secular and religious Jews can barely talk about one another without spitting. Back in February I would drop the boys off at their schools, stroll through the leafy, charming German Colony, and wait on line for a double espresso; a few blocks away, others were waiting on line for gas masks.

A few months ago, we took the boys to the old prison in Jerusalem's Russian Compound, where the British authorities once imprisoned -- and executed -- Jewish and Arab agitators during the Mandate. The guard asked us to try and keep quiet, as someone inside was filming a movie. A few minutes later a film crew turned around the corner, trailing a little man as he peered into the cells. As he came closer I realized it was Yitzhak Shamir, no doubt reminiscing about the days he spent in this very prison during the struggle for a state. As he walked by, we said "Shalom," and he reached down and mussed Noah's hair.

My first thought was, "Yikes, Shamir. Of all the politicos we have to run into the intransigent little troll who almost single-handedly turned the U.S. government against Israel." And then I caught myself, remembering the sacrifices he made and the courage it must have taken to stand up to Britain then and the world today. And so I crouched down to Noah, and said, "Seventy years from now you can tell your grandchildren that you met a former Prime Minister of Israel, who actually fought for her Independence -- 120 years ago!"

That's what I want to come away with this Yom HaAtzmaut. Realism, cynicism, and self-criticism have their place, but not at a party. Rather, turn down the volume. And dance.


Andrew Silow-Carroll, a professional writer and TI alumnus, is completing a fellowship for Jewish educators at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. He plans to join the staff of CLAL, the Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.