Is the bond between Diaspora Jews and Israel stronger than a couple of summer teen tours and a vague obligation to keep up with Israeli politics? Gregory Levey might have a deeper insight on that question than most of us who sit strictly on one side or the other of the Diaspora-Israel divide. Levey was a North American Jewish law student (imagine that) who applied for a job with the Israeli consulate and found himself, through a series of accidents, in an inner circle of the Israeli government writing speeches for Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. He recorded his experiences in the engaging and witty new book, Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned In the Israeli Government. We asked Shmuel Rosner, US correspondent for Haaretz, to engage Levey on his time as a misplaced Israeli official and the lessons he learned in the process.
Here are some things I’ve recently learned about your background:
Back in the seventies, when your parents were looking for a place to live – having decided they should be leaving segregated South Africa and find a better place – one of the options they have considered was Israel. However — as you only briefly mention in Shut Up, I’m Talking — Israel was “not to their liking.” No sin there.
Why exactly they didn’t like about Israel is not quite clear from the book you wrote. “We couldn’t stand the rudeness of the people,” you quote your mother as saying, without much elaboration. The family settled eventually in Canada, preferring, as you amusingly observe, “polite people who had opinions about nothing” over “ill-mannered people who had opinions about everything.”
But here is what I thought was the most striking thing about your book, and about your story — the story of you immigrating to Israel for a fairly short period in which you worked for the Prime Minister’s office as a speech writer and press officer. Exactly like your parents back in their day, your eventual decision that Israel was not the country for you lacks reasoning too. Yes, you had your fair share of meetings with Israeli bureaucrats — not exactly an aphrodisiac — and you had many frustrations with the ways and habits of this country. But what was it about Israel that made you leave after such a short time? Was it the also the “rudeness,” or was it the fact that you saw Israel as a “dangerously dysfunctional family,” or maybe your “doubts that the county’s problems would ever be solved”?
In sum: was it a political problem with the country and its policies, or a personal problem of someone who does not feel as if he belongs. Does not feel at home.
And here is another question: Was this problem not magnified by the fact that you worked for the government? That instead of trying to be an “Israeli” you immediately became the lesser brand of the “Israeli official”?
As you can probably guess from the tone of my questions, I think I have some of the answers to these questions (now, that’s Israeli rudeness). I think that your “Israel experience” was not at all indicative of Israeli life. I think that your attempt at writing a book that’s supposedly revealing of the true nature of Israel is interesting — because you’ve failed. Because in failing you did reveal something important. Namely, the difficulties of a nice Jewish American boy like you are (or were when you started this adventure) to understand what it is that makes Israel tick.
I don’t know what Americans, or Canadians, will think when they will be reading this book. Your writing is sharp, and your ability to make fun of Israelis, their strange ways, their abrupt mood changes, their, well, rudeness – I prefer to think about it as directness – is remarkable. But where does it lead? What new things can we learn about Israel that we didn’t already know?
What I learned from this book is that even someone like yourself — as talented and perceptive as you might be — has an inherent deficiency when you describe the lives of Israelis. The book describes our governmental failures in great detail, but the details do not add up to a picture of real human beings. We are caricatures, sometimes funny, often pathetic, at times annoying. We are the sum of ridiculous meetings with the taxi driver, the flamboyant spokesperson, the apathetic tow track technician.
Here is one example that keeps popping in the book: your repeated puzzlement with the fact that Israelis constantly improvise. Suddenly, you find yourself in the position of representing the country you barely know in the United Nations General assembly, or representing the Prime Minister’s office in a meeting with senior military officers. In both cases you have no real instructions, no directions. And you’re amazed, and somewhat lost.
This is what separates you from many Israelis. They’d have no problem making the decisions you’re asked to make. Moreover, they’d know that if the meeting was really important, if the vote had any meaning, you’d not be the one to make the call. In a sense, the joke is not on them, it is on you — the dedicated, strange American who takes his job with such seriousness (and make no mistake, I’m not here to defend the many flaws of Israel’s society or the lack of process in places in which it is indeed needed).
Anyway, what I think will be interesting in this dialogue, is to try and explore your story as a way to understand the real divide that separates Diaspora Jews from Jewish Israelis. Here’s my little theory on which I will ask you to comment: I think North American Jews are not alienated from Israel to the extent they are (and as you probably know there is some debate going on about it) mainly because of its politics.
I think what separates them is a cultural divide. The difficulties Americans have when they try to understand why is it that Israel behaves the way it does, and the equivalent difficulties of Israelis to understand the possibility and viability of Jewish life in America. And I also think that your book provides us with a magnifying glass through which we can see this divide in full color. You just don’t get us – we just don’t get what it there not to get.
[Ed note: Gregory Levey will be reading from Shut Up, I'm Talking at the Borders on 57th and Park on April 22 at 7pm. Details are here.]