An optimistic country
Published in: Jewish Chronicle
Having just spent some time in America, I'm afraid I've come back with stars and stripes in my eyes. For the short period I was there I felt as if I could breathe again, a relief that evaporated as soon as I touched down at Heathrow.
It wasn't just that New York, where I was for part of the time, is such a Jewish city. It wasn't just that one is spoilt for choice of synagogues or kosher restaurants there, or that there is a well-appointed Jewish museum in a smart part of Manhattan, or that even in small town newsagents well beyond New York you could find Jewish new year cards on sale.
It was more that you suddenly realise that you've stopped holding your breath whenever you mention Israel or hear it talked about. The default mode of malice, hatred or indifferent distaste towards Israel, now sadly the norm in Britain, is absent from America. And not just from the Jews.
Both Jewishness and sympathy for Israel are upfront. That well-known British lumbar exercise, the Jewish cringe, is nowhere to be seen. At the bravura performance by Tovah Feldshuh in the Broadway play Golda's Balcony, the audience gave a standing ovation. Can you imagine a London audience leaping to applaud a play that sympathises with Israel's nuclear dilemma? Can you imagine a mainstream British actress called Tovah Feldshuh?
This is not to say that Israel's plight necessarily looms large in the minds of most American Jews. Nor is it to say that most side with President Bush for his support of Israel. On the contrary, most Jews I met were staunch Democrats, for whom Bush was the political equivalent of a voodoo doll.
Okay, New York isn't typical of the rest of the country. And there is plenty of hostility to Israel on campus and among other redoubts of the American intelligentsia. But the default position is still instinctive sympathy for Israel.
People say this is because of the strength of the American evangelical churches, which take a strong pro-Israel position. True enough (despite the dubious theology of conversion to which many of them subscribe). But American sympathy for Israel is surely more profoundly rooted.
For this is a culture that deals in absolutes. There are the bad guys and the good guys. The bad guys do the mass murder of innocents. The good guys are the victims and the ones who try to stop it. Britain finds this simple-minded. I find it decent and moral.
9/11 made Americans identify even more with a small nation whose values and very existence are under threat - a nation whose identity, moreover, lies at the core of America's own.
For there are deep similarities between the American and Israeli identities. As Samuel Huntington says in his recent book Who Are We?, the popular myth that America is a nation of immigrants -often cited as the reason for its pro-Jewish sympathies - is a gross over-simplification. Yes, there were waves of immigrants. But what they joined up to was a dominant settler culture built on strong foundations of race, ethnicity, culture and religion - in other words, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
That, of course, is why America has its ugly history of racial prejudice, as well as its fair share of anti-Jewish feeling which persists in some quarters today. But its passionate attachment to an ethnic and religious identity is also why it sympathises with Israel-the very reason why Israel is anathema to 'multicultural', nation-denying Britain and Europe.
Indeed, it is America's pride in its identity, its belief that it has a progressive mission to export its values to the benefit of the rest of the world, that simultaneously upsets so many in Britain and Europe and yet provides what is perhaps its most attractive characteristic of all -its unbounded sense of optimism.
It's the sheer energy of the place that strikes you, the sense of can-do, the certainty that people can improve life for themselves and others and that setbacks can be overcome. Serving others is not a chore but a pleasure, because satisfaction is to be gained from making someone's life that bit easier or nicer. You get the impression that people are glad to be part of the same human race as you.
What a difference from cynical, depressed, defeatist Britain. Yes, the US lacks subtlety; yes, sometimes it's brutal and primitive (think of its prison system). But that sense of optimism, the belief in the future, is a precious commodity.
As we celebrate the new year, and think about how we live our lives and our purpose in the world, we come together to reaffirm our identity and values. It's that renewal of what we are and the beliefs we so value that nurture the optimism that we can make the world a better place. L'shana tova (happy new year).