JULY 19, 2018, JERUSALEM – Yes, this is indeed being physically written from Jerusalem, but only hours after returning from almost two weeks spent in bucolic New England.
With balmy lakes rippling with kayaks and paddleboards, late morning diner breakfasts, and early evening barbecues with s’mores, both the mind and the mindset are still thousands of miles away somewhere on a picturesque Maine shore, and not back here in the Middle East maelstrom.
You hear nary a horn blaring from a testy driver or witness a loutish motorist peeing on the side of the road, both of which occurred within minutes of leaving Ben Gurion Airport upon my return. We’re not in New England anymore.
Israel runs on frenzy, controversy, arguments, and altercations. We’re constantly on edge, fighting about politics, religion, or the World Cup. In Maine, there’s no edge, just a blissful middle.
It appears the only issue that can jolt New Englanders out of their summer solstice is Donald Trump. The American president has provoked such a polarized response from his constituents that they’re beginning to behave like Israelis in their curt, direct, and antagonistic way.
And of course, no matter who you talk to, it’s assumed that you – the visitor from Israel – will be in complete agreement with their views. My first encounter with the new America took place in a local rural breakfast diner seemingly patronized by summer transplants and full-time locals. Waiting for a table to open up, I struck up a conversation with a pleasant older couple also in line. Turns out he was a former policeman on Cape Cod who now owns a private security firm.
“So, what do Israelis think about our president?” he asked me after learning of my residence. My mind went into one of those fast-motion dialogues as I pondered my answer. Do I honestly respond that most Israelis, like the rest of the world, think he’s deranged? I don’t want to risk antagonizing an ex-cop and wind up getting stomped waiting for my eggs and home fries.
“Well,” I answered, “I think that most Israelis appreciate Trump’s policies in the Middle East, especially his moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, while realizing that he’s unpredictable and perhaps a little unstable.”
“I don’t think he’s unstable or unpredictable. I agree with him down the line, on Israel, on immigrants, the whole lot,” the ex-cop answered, as I internally congratulated myself over not blurting out my original thoughts. “The country is on its way to becoming great again, and Israel will only benefit from that.”
Thankfully, our tables were soon ready so I didn’t have to keep nodding politely in agreement.
Such awkward encounters were kept in check a few days later when a family gathering required some mediation to ensure that the anti- and pro-Trump sides agreed to a temporary truce. Politics, at least of the domestic kind, was declared off-limits, which left conversation somewhat stilted at times. You could just feel the tension as people held back their now-automatic tendencies to grumble about everything Trump.
The only subject that everyone could agree on, in fact, was Israel. Israeli technology helped locate the missing Thai kids lost in the cave that captured the world’s attention. Israel was giving aid to Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting and heading to the Israeli border. Divided by Trump, we bonded over Israel.
But the encounter with the ex-cop stayed with me – especially the Israel connection. The worrisome equation I was picking up during my stay in America was Israel supporter = Trump supporter and Trump supporter = Israel supporter.The dilemma facing Israel in the Trump Era is how to handle the details when the leader of the United States is dismissed by much of the rest of the world as a threat and a menace.
Hopefully, those Americans who aren’t fans are smart enough to be able to separate their disdain and outrage over Trump from their feelings about Israel. And hopefully Israel is smart enough to realize that the Trump Administration, too, shall pass, and that strong ties need to be kept and strengthened with political leadership on all sides of the American spectrum.
But if things get too tense, a great suggestion to all sides in the political battles raging in the US and in Israel is to take a couple days and go jump in the lake.
David Brinn writes from Jerusalem.