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Rothschild on the Hudson: An Israeli in NY inspired by J14

Skepticism towards the Israeli July 14 protests is rampant amongst many Israelis living in the States, but Uri Leventer-Roberts has no doubt – there’s no place like home. And home isn’t New York.

By Uri Leventer-Roberts

“My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West.” Never have the words of the 12th century Jewish poet and writer Yehuda Halevi resonated more with me than in the past three weeks. Halevi wrote about the challenge of living in prosperous Spain and following the events in Zion from afar. I wake up and go to sleep on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but since July 14, that merely describes my physical whereabouts. Emotionally, intellectually, my heart and mind are out in the streets of Israel.

The web, Facebook, and Twitter are making it easier to follow, and to a certain extent to even participate and contribute, but how I wish I could be there myself. Yes, you can read the stories and commentators, and comment yourself. You can see the images and hear the chants on YouTube and in most cases even broadcast live (And I do. All of the above, and more). But it’s actually those most naïve and purely happy tweets or Facebook statuses that make it clear I am missing something. Reading “I’m part of history,” “I’ve never been more proud to be Israeli,” and “These are the happiest days I’ve experienced in this country” from friends known for their eternal cynicism leaves no room for doubt: you really need to be there to fully understand.

So, acknowledging the limitations, I try to do whatever I can to support the movement from afar. This is the point where many in Israel (or Israelis abroad) might become dismissive. They’ve somehow been convinced that residents of the Tel Aviv bubble had the right to start a national protest – but those who don’t even live here?? Those for whom an efficient subway system is not part of a demands list but simply a fact of life… who gave them the right to speak?!

Well, one thing we all learned in the past three weeks is the danger in generalizations. So let me speak not for the “Israelis in New York,” but for myself. We live here now but this is not home, and we have no intention of making it home. When I tell Israeli friends that we are set on going back to Israel, some ask why. I tell them it’s a better place to live – that the public education system is better (in the U.S. good education in 2011 is private and very expensive, and any Israeli who tells you otherwise should start following the local news here as closely as he follows Ynet, most of us don’t), that health care is better and that there’s generally more support for raising a family.

Two or three years ago people nodded in agreement. In the last couple of years, the nodding vanished. More and more Israeli friends – both here and in Israel – listen patiently to my arguments, and then they say, “That’s no longer the case, Uri. You are dreaming about raising your family in the Israel you grew up in, but that Israel doesn’t exist anymore.” Those who live in Israel tell you how they’re not able to make ends meet (the English translation for the beloved ‘not finishing the month’ in Hebrew). Those who live here tell you how their older siblings in Israel who have kids still rely on their parents.

A year ago, when we visited one Israeli middle-class living room after another, trying to understand the cost of living so we can start preparing accordingly, one line was constantly repeated: “the only way to make money in Israel is to bring it from abroad.” “Don’t rush to come back,” people told us, “stay there until you are able to save a nice amount, it’s only downhill once you return.” We listened, we smiled, and we didn’t change our minds about coming back as soon as we can – but we were also not surprised at all when the protests started.

When people told me “This Israel doesn’t exist any more,” I used to shrug, or say that they did not know that for a fact. The bad news about the 300,000 that took to the streets last Saturday is that they proved that the skeptics who make fun of our plans to go back are right – the Israel I want for the baby boy my wife and I are expecting is indeed almost gone. The good news is that our generation is not giving up on it yet.

There are great Israelis out here. Some are not going back anytime soon. Some plan on returning no matter what. Most will decide based on what’s right for themselves and their families. It was saddening to see Israel becoming the second option for many of them, and it’s thrilling to see us fight to make it the front-runner again. I read about the criticism and the skepticism toward the protests in Israel – imagine the level of skepticism over here, across the ocean. I wish I was in Israel, but for now what I can do is support from afar (and in this day and age a “like” is a ”like” is a “like”) and serve as a living placard for my fellow Israelis here, trying to convince them that this is real.

One last point. When Israelis in the U.S. (or anyone really) asks me why I want to live in Israel, I am quick to list services like education and health care. Those resonate best in the capitalistic/cost-benefit analyzing state-of-mind developed here. When I go a bit deeper (read: “further away from the Israeli cynicism”), I mention the place of family in Israeli culture or social factors like friends. Those don’t pose a real threat to the individualistic perceptions infused into every cup of Starbucks. Rarely do I dare to go deeper and say out loud the two things for which I wouldn’t want any other place as a home for my children but Israel: the sense of community and the true meaning to one’s life. For so long I’ve been careful not to let those two slip out in public, fearing the following laughs and being mocked for being naïve. Since July 14, that’s no longer the case.

Uri Leventer-Roberts manages philanthropic grants in Israel and in New York

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