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2018 Annual Assessment

In the 1970s the United States underwent a multiculturalism revolution that underscored the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity. Figures from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, Jews among them, began to appear on both the big and small screens.3 This trend peaked in the 1990s, when Jews “ruled” prime time television.4 [8.]

Israel was at the center of two American television dramas based on the July 4, 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue operation: Victory at Entebbe (1976) starring Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Dreyfus, and Raid on Entebbe (1977), starring Charles Bronson. A direct line can be traced between Exodus (1960) and these two made-for-TV movies. In both cases the Israeli combat soldier, fighting for his country and his compatriots, is showcased. In Exodus, against the background of illegal pre-state Jewish immigration and the War of Independence, Ari Ben Canaan, the Israeli freedom fighter created in the image of the American pioneer, is played by a suntanned, blue-eyed Paul Newman. The 1976 offering, inspired by Yoni Netanyahu, further elaborates the image of the Israeli fighter, this time as the elite, fearless commander that Yoni indeed embodied for many Israelis, who were taught to view him as a symbol of heroism and moral valor. Both the real Yoni Netanyahu and his fictionalized representation in the TV dramas personify the Israeli values of heroism and courage and illustrate how the initial pioneer image embodied in Ari Ben Canaan-Paul Newman developed over time. In contrast to the earlier pioneer, toiling for the establishment of the state, the new pioneer is already embedded in a reality of national independence, and represents the existing State of Israel. The pioneer fights the British and the Arabs, but is portrayed mainly as a frontiersman seeking to make the desert bloom and to live in peace in Eretz Israel, the land of his forefathers to which he holds a Biblical claim. The new pioneer now conceived as one who strives on behalf of his young country, defending it and its citizens with unapologetic determination and heroism.

The image of Yoni paved the way for other heroic representations, most notably the Mossad agent with his aura of mystery. For Americans, the new image perpetuates the sense of identification with the brave Israelis who, in a manner consistent with American values, work to advance their people and their country while also fighting the forces of evil that threaten the entire world. Thus, Israeli soldiers were juxtaposed with Palestinian and German terrorists, both in the Menachem Golan’s Israeli feature film (Operation Thunderbolt, 1977) and in the two aforementioned American TV movies.
On the other hand, the overlap or symmetry between the Israeli hero and his American counterpart eroded somewhat during the 1970s; the Israeli commander or Mossad agent now also represents Israeli difference, especially in terms of how political sovereignty is depicted. Israel is still a “sister” of the United States and the two countries’ shared values are underscored, but Israel is also a strong and independent state determinedly engaged inin its own self-defense.

Other differences highlighted in recent American television shows have been conveyed by the distinctive Middle Eastern signifiers that characterize male and female Israeli Mossad agents, such as former intelligence operatives Ziva Ben David in the NCIS series and Samar Navabi in The Blacklist. Both women are of Levantine appearance and are tough and professional fighters, but their Middle Eastern sex appeal is inextricably bound up with the toughness and foreignness they project.

As an interesting but relevant aside, it is worth considering the Gal Gadot phenomenon. The successful Israeli actress became an American audience favorite this past year; it goes without saying that she personifies Israel for many Americans. News items and interviews with the actress mention Gadot’s military service, calling attention to her country of origin; Israeliness is also conveyed by Gadot’s physical appearance, her sassy and mischievous manner and, perhaps, the warrior-woman role she plays in Wonder Woman. In Gadot’s case as well, Israeliness comes with a positive and attractive message, but also with a foreign-Mediterranean exoticness.

Interestingly, the Israeli macho image is also present in serious literature. The major American author Phillip Roth, who passed away in May at the age of 85, wrote several novels that relate to Israel in some way: Portnoy’s Complaint (1967); The Counterlife (1986); and Operation Shylock: a Confession (1993). Roth’s writings give expression to the rough-and-ready Israeli image. The Israeli is the “New Jew,” capable of handling a weapon and fighting his enemies. The Israeli Jew is contrasted in Roth’s novels with the American Jew who still carries the exile within him and who is repelled by Israeli pugnacity and harshness. This is carried to comedic-parodic extremes in Portnoy’s Complaint (1967). Israel is a major presence in the sexual exploits of Alexander Portnoy, the neurotic and tormented New York Jew. When faced with a native-born Israeli female soldier on a visit to Israel, Portnoy is unable to perform sexually. His impotence symbolizes the rift between the two communities and the sense of confusion experienced by the American Jew, who is simultaneously attracted to Israel and repulsed by it. In the aforementioned works Roth forecasts the tension destined to erupt in subsequent decades between the American Jewish and Israeli communities. This tension has indeed surfaced in recent literature, but it should not be viewed solely as a divisive force, but also as a basis for dialogue about the boundaries of the shared Jewish identity.

Another significant emerging trend with regard to Israel and its place in American-Jewish identity is that of bi-directional movement, to and from Israel. Israel is a compelling arena in which to explore one’s identity, both Jewish and American; but it is a temporary space, a way-station, not a final destination. This, again, perpetuates the paradoxical state of affairs in which, as we saw earlier with American Jewish Zionism, both Israel and Zionism simultaneously reinforce Jewishness and Americanness, providing a vehicle for Jewish acclimatization and integration in American society.

In 1976, Saul Bellow published To Jerusalem and Back (author’s emphasis). This back-and-forth movement recurs in other works of literature, such as Nessa Rapoport’s Preparing for Sabbath (1981), Anna Roiphe’s Lovingkindness (1987), and Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park (2001). In all these books, Israel is more an element of Jewish identity, a stop on the protagonists’ search for self as Americans and as American Jews, than an independent political space.

Israel as idea rather than concrete reality. Recent literary works still reflect this attitude, though with an important difference: Israel is becoming more and more meaningful and real for both the writers themselves and many of their readers.
This double movement, and especially the return to the United States, also express an internal conflict in the American Jewish psyche. Thus, on the one hand the American Jew is drawn to support Zionism and recognizes the importance of renewed Jewish sovereignty and its meaningful place in Jewish history. One the other hand, it is very difficult to leave the United States and relinquish the secure, convenient and tangible American life and identity.

Israel as a kind of transit point reappears in the successful TV series Transparent, which debuted in early 2014 and was created by the American-Jewish producer/writer Jill Soloway. The series centers around the Pfefferman family, whose father has come out as a trans woman. The pilot was written after Soloway’s biological father came out as transgender. Although the decision to set much of the show’s action in Israel and to make Israel part of the protagonists’ identity journey underscores the continuing perception that Israel is an important, or at least a natural, stop in the American-Jewish quest for meaning and self-discovery. Naturally, the inclusion of Israel calls attention to current political discourse, highlighting young American Jews’ interest in Israeli political affairs and the points of contention that mark them. Transparent is drawn to the issue of the Territories and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply by virtue of addressing the question of boundaries in a meaningful way. Israel is a meaningful place, but it is also a locus of moral controversy. In any case, Israel, as place that marks and establishes boundaries, stands in contrast to the overall spirit of the series (and of young American Jewish life in general), in which boundaries – perceived as an outdated and conservative force whose value has eroded – are blurred.

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