Thursday, August 21, 2008


Mark Twain concludes the remarkable account of his “pleasure excursion” to Europe and Palestine this way: “At last, one pleasant morning, we steamed up the harbor of New York, all on deck, all dressed in Christian garb – by special order, for there was a latent disposition in some quarters to come out as Turks – and amid a waving of handkerchiefs from welcoming friends, the glad pilgrims noted the shiver of the decks that told that ship and pier had joined hands again and the long, strange cruise was over. Amen.”

I arrived in Chicago by airplane without welcoming friends (that would come later), waving of handkerchiefs, or other fanfare, and instead of the shiver of the decks, it was the jolt of the wheels touching down on the runway that signaled the end of my own nearly seven-month visit abroad. I had no Turkish garb to show off, but I did return with a few gifts, packages of food, and articles of clothing I had bought in Israel, all duly declared for customs inspection.

To pass the time on the long flight back to the States, broken up by an overnight stay in London, I read one of the last remaining things on my spring reading list: Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo, cleverly subtitled Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. It seemed appropriate. After all, I began this travelogue with a discussion of Tocqueville, and my return to the exceptional country he visited for nine months in 1831-32 was imminent. Would it look different to me, I wondered, after half a year in Israel?

Lévy’s book is a fascinating, often insightful, and sometimes amusing account of his own journey through America in 2005. Some of the things he describes – the driving habits of Americans, for instance, or the “calm, discipline, a mixture of docility and courtesy, gregarious submission and civilization” of American crowds (“Here … when people bump into each other, there’s a flurry of ‘It’s okay,’ ‘You’re welcome,’ ‘Enjoy your trip’”) – reminded me of all the little things that make America distinctive, while other observations, like the profusion of American flags he witnessed in Newport, Rhode Island (so much like the profusion of Israeli flags I saw everywhere, but so different from Lévy’s native France, “where the flag has, so to speak, disappeared”), suggested some possible affinities between Israel and the United States.

But perhaps the most interesting part of Lévy’s book, for me, was his speculations about why Europeans have for so long been fascinated with traveling to America and writing about it. This got me to thinking about my own fascination with traveling to and writing about Israel, particularly this past semester. Partly, of course, it has to do with my ethnic background, but reading American Vertigo convinced me that my fascination springs as much from being American as it does from being of Jewish descent.

There are, Lévy suggests, at least three reasons for the European’s fascination with America. First, America is “not the exotic but the nearby; not the other but the same.” (Compare Claus Offe in Reflections on America: “‘America’ … has for Europeans always been not an exotic growth but a branch on the same tree.”) America, Lévy remarks, is “a way of changing places whereby you travel a very long route to meet not the other but yourself, once again and afresh.” For this reason, the European’s journey to America has “the structure of a phenomenological odyssey,” like Hegel’s Geist (consciousness) coming to realize that the Other it confronts is in fact an expression of itself.

For an American traveling to Israel, the latter country also often feels the same. In part, perhaps, this is because of the creeping Americanization that I wrote about in my inaugural post, which so troubled Moshe in Tzfat. But I think this feeling of familiarity has a deeper foundation and that the cultural influences run the other way, too. Lévy writes about the aspiration of America’s Pilgrim fathers to create a City upon a Hill; the way that Americans of George Washington’s generation turned him, just after his death, “into the ‘Aaron,’ the ‘Moses,’ of this new exodus from Egypt that was to produce the country”; the “odd,” deeply rooted, messianic conviction that “the American people is a chosen people,” a “new Jerusalem,” a “Canaan of modern times,” “the reincarnation of the ancient Hebrews crossing that avatar of the Red Sea that is the Atlantic,” “born under the sign of the Universal and elected by God to build here, on this land promised to it, a new kind of nation, freed from the corruption, rottenness, and aberrations of old Europe.” These spiritual motifs, to which I alluded in an early post on liberty, which are so constitutive of American culture and identity, are altogether different from the crass commercialism, materialism, and egoism that Moshe associated with America, though perhaps no less troubling in their own way (Lévy found them “problematic”). More to the point, they are constitutive ideals and myths that America shares with Israel. Is it any wonder that a traveler from a country that fancies itself to be a new Jerusalem would feel so at home in the old one? “Israel,” Lévy points out, “along with France and America, is one of the rare countries founded on … a ‘creed.’” What he neglects to mention is that, at least as far as Israel and America are concerned, their creeds have common roots.

Lévy suggests a second reason why Europeans are so fascinated with America: because America represents to them the future, an advance guard, which, “according to your taste, according to each person’s temperament, threatens us or is promised to us.” Again, Israel holds a similar fascination for the American visitor. At 232 years of age, America is still a new country, but Israel is newer still. (I remember wondering, during Israel’s sixtieth birthday, what Independence Day in America must have been like in 1836, just after Tocqueville visited.) Israel’s very establishment, I noted in previous posts, was premised on the perceived absence or active negation of a constraining past and the astonishing creation of new social facts, and it is today an ultra-modern country replete with gay pride parades and a booming high-tech industry (the very combination that civic groups were paying Richard Florida to promote in cities across the United States a few years ago).

Finally, Lévy suggests that Europeans are fascinated with America because it represents not only the future and the “ultramodern” but also, paradoxically, the past, “landscapes of the dawn of the world” (Death Valley, the Grand Canyon), “the extremely archaic.”

Israel also represents the archaic past to the American visitor, but a human and not merely natural past. “Here in Israel,” I wrote at the beginning of my journey, “even in the new and modern city of Tel Aviv, I find that remnants of the past have a way of sticking around and lingering in the present.” The past is present everywhere, from the countless ruins that A. and I inspected (Jerusalem, Joppa, Caesarea, Masada, Baram, En Gedi, and so on) to the holidays in which the historical tragedies and triumphs of the Jewish people are continually recounted (Purim, Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day). Like Mark Twain, I found that “no single foot of ground … seems to be without a stirring and important history of its own,” and that it was impossible to “steal a walk of a hundred yards without a guide along to talk unceasingly about every stone you step upon and drag you back ages and ages to the day when it achieved celebrity.”

Perhaps, then, as Lévy remarks about his journey to America, my own journey to Israel had the peculiarity of giving me a taste of both past and future at the same time. That should hardly be surprising. After all, Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel imagining what a future Jewish society in Palestine would look like was entitled Altneuland (Old New Land).

Whatever the reasons, I remain as fascinated as ever with Israel and its people.

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