I’m here at last!” That’s the opening sentence of the aerogramme I sent to my family after arriving in Israel for the first time in October 1968. (By the way, young reader, if you don’t know what an aerogramme is, feel free to ask a parent or grandparent.) After months of meticulous planning, I was finally in Jerusalem to participate in a junior year abroad program at the American College in Jerusalem, an institution no longer in existence. Although I’m sure it wasn’t on my mind then, in retrospect, those initial words in my letter reflected the sentiments of the Jewish people upon returning to our historic homeland following an absence of two millennia.
Thanks to my beloved mother, z”l, all of the aerogrammes I sent home are neatly organized in a binder, which I used recently to travel back in time and again witness the experiences and read the thoughts of the 19-year-old me during that year — an interesting and moving process to say the least.
One of the principal themes, from the earliest aerogrammes to the last, was the exhilaration I felt as a member of an American minority group living for the first time in a Jewish majority environment. “The signs are all in Hebrew,” I wrote, with a touch of awe. In my second aerogramme: “The city (Jerusalem) “is preparing for a JEWISH holiday.” Around Chanukah: “The houses all have menorahs in the windows instead of Christmas trees and lights. It gives one the feeling of really being at home.”
Those initial reactions can be understood in historical context. Just over a year after the Six Day War, the wider American-Jewish community had just started to seriously engage with Israel. Before then, Israel largely was the province of a much narrower Zionist-oriented slice of the community. In the late 1960s, I arrived with few preconceptions, most of which probably were shaped by images from the movie Exodus. To gain a realistic picture of life in Israel back then, one had to experience it firsthand. Now, 50 years later, after having lived in Israel for some eight years and visited countless times, that original sense of awe and exhilaration is not as pristine. Yet, it is still deeply embedded within my consciousness, anchoring an enduring attachment.
Fifty years ago, having emerged as unlikely victors in the Six Day War, Israeli leaders were thought of in mythic proportions. During that year in Jerusalem, I got to see David Ben-Gurion on several occasions, including at a special program at Hebrew University directed toward foreign students. As I reported in an aerogramme, Ben-Gurion, Israel’s George Washington, declared, “I realize not all the youth from the United States will come to Israel to settle. Only the best will. And I realize not all those youth who come to Israel to settle will live on kibbutzim. Only the best will.”
Times have changed. In this information age — with the internet, social media, and the proliferation of TV news outlets — there is ample opportunity to get to know Israel in-depth, remotely. And that’s a good thing. Still, a part of me regrets that young Jews traveling to Israel for the first time may not feel that same starry-eyed awe and exhilaration I did all those years ago.
The political environment is so different today. When I had my first encounter with the Jewish state, in the afterglow of the Six Day War, Israel enjoyed almost universal popularity in the West. The Israeli people generally seemed united and confident in their leadership. Of course, that confidence was destined to be eroded in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I do understand why it’s harder today to instill in young Jews a deep connection to a highly polarized Israel whose leaders, hardly mythic, today are perceived as corrupt and opportunistic. Add to that Israeli government policies they find objectionable, many young Jews simply choose to disengage — or aren’t even interested in making the effort to engage in the first place.
There are no easy answers here, no panaceas. The best we can do, I believe, is to make every effort to communicate to our children and grandchildren how truly amazing, how precious it is to be alive having realized our age-old dream of restored Jewish national sovereignty and the tremendous opportunity that provides to shape our collective destiny.
Raffel’s Riffs readers know that I am a staunch advocate of bipartisan U.S. support of Israel and a defender against attacks on Israel’s legitimacy. They also know that I am critical of Israeli government policies with which I disagree. But I myself was curious to see my political perspective when I was 19 — even whether I had political awareness at that age. Judging from the aerogrammes, it’s clear that my current approach had already taken root in 1968-69.
This was the time of the War of Attrition, when Egypt constantly shelled Israeli military positions on the Sinai side of the Suez Canal. After one attack that cost the lives of 17 Israeli soldiers, I wrote, “In a country as small as Israel, an event like this affects everybody directly or indirectly.” I continued: “One thing is for sure — the United States better elect a president who can damn sure be counted on to protect this country if it ever becomes necessary.”
This observation was made just weeks before the 1968 presidential election that pitted Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon. I mentioned in my aerogramme that most Israelis I spoke to weren’t necessarily pro-Humphrey, but they were anti-Nixon. They nervously recalled the Eisenhower administration’s policy of forcing Israel to withdraw from the Sinai in 1956. Nixon had been President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president.
Later that year, in April 1969, after then- Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir rejected an offer by Jordan’s King Hussein to make peace if Israel returned the Arab section of east Jerusalem, I wrote: “We can’t put Hussein and Nasser in the same bag. Hussein should be listened to and encouraged. I’m afraid Israel is going to get the reputation as the side that won’t listen — the tough customer. It’s a pity, but I see it coming if they aren’t a little more flexible, at least to Hussein.” To this day, those Jewish advocacy organizations that promote love of Israel and support Israeli security, while also leave room for thoughtful criticism of Israeli government policy, are my kind of organizations.
Before traveling to Israel, my professional vision revolved around one day becoming a public interest lawyer. I think it was inspired by “Gideon’s Trumpet” by Anthony Lewis, which I was assigned to read before my freshman year at Franklin & Marshall College. It described a U.S. Supreme Court ruling about the right of an impoverished criminal defendant to an attorney. By the end of that academic year in Israel, though, the vision had shifted dramatically. I wrestled not only with a professional path, but also the question of where I wanted to spend my life.
Early on, I wrote: “There is much to be said for life in Israel, but I think I’m too ingrained with the American way of life.” My tune had changed by April 1969. After attending a Day of Remembrance ceremony on Mount Herzl and watching hundreds of mothers grieving alongside their sons’ graves, I wrote: “At the end, Hatikva was played with the background of their sobbing and the city of Jerusalem in the distance. At that moment, I could have been convinced to live in Israel by just about anybody.”
In the ensuing years, in fact, I studied law at Hebrew University and became a member of the Israel Bar Association, a step toward making aliyah. When I came back to the United States in 1978, temporarily at first and then permanently, instead of the law I chose a career in Jewish community relations with a focus on Israel advocacy.
And so, a half century after penning that first aerogramme, Israel remains at the center of my life, enriching it with meaning and purpose.
Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.