I woke up hungover in downtown Austin on Juneteenth 2002, three months before I moved to Israel for the first time.
I called my pop from a payphone and waited for him across the street, at a park where a church was having a BBQ or a picnic.
A nice older woman gave me an orange soda and offered me a plate, perhaps seeing what state I was in. I chugged the can and waited for my pop, but by the time he pulled up at the curb, in my mind I was already long gone.
They say young Americans who move to Israel are looking for meaning or running from something. For me it was both.
Now, nearly two decades later, with Israel one of the world’s worst-hit countries for COVID-19, with a thrice-indicted wannabe strongman dragging this country into the abyss, and with the return of my children's schools nowhere in sight, it’s time to take stock of things, find where the fire exits are, and decide if, when, and how we make a break for it.
It didn’t have to be like this. That might be what hurts the most.
Neither here nor there
A few weeks into the first lockdown, I wrote a blog piece about fear, parenting, and the pandemic. I noted that as terrifying as this is, I feel lucky to be in Israel to face it, where I have more confidence the country can go on a war footing, come together, and stop at nothing to defeat this enemy.
A lot can change in 6 months.
By the start of the High Holidays in late September, Israel had the world’s highest per capita rate of infections per million, and we’ve been averaging more than one killed per hour for weeks now.
A new nationwide lockdown is in place, and while they originally said it would be only for three weeks, there’s no reason to believe it won’t last much, much longer. As of October 5, 2020, if my kids go back to school at all before January I’ll consider it a victory.
Just as the pandemic has revealed America’s failures, it has done the same for Israel, including in ways that are painfully similar to the U.S. – a lack of planning or decisive action even after we knew what we were facing (between the end of the first lockdown and the launch of the second, there was an absolute failure to develop any track and trace system, to name just one failure), the elevation of cronies and yes men and the demonization, sidelining, and scapegoating of qualified public servants, a growing embrace of conspiracy theories, and a leader who rejects any and all personal responsibility for the failures.
But failed states are like unhappy families – each failed state is failing in its own unique ways.
In Israel, the epidemic has laid bare our struggling, overtaxed public health care system (Israel has 3.0 hospital beds per 1,000 people, well below the OECD average of 4.5, and less than half that of high-tech superpower Hungary), our failure to carry out long-term strategic planning, and our corrupt political system which for over a decade has revolved around the preservation – at all costs – of the political career of one man.
Mainly, it has exposed how the demands of coalition politics have seen the state cede sovereignty and enforcement of the law in entire sectors of the population – in particular where the rates of infection are currently the highest.
It has – again – highlighted the prime minister’s knack for thriving in chaos and internal discord, playing one sector of the population against another, shifting the battle from one against a deadly virus to one between those who want to gather in closed synagogues and yeshivas and those who want to demonstrate against the government.
Like always, it has also meant turning all willing parties against the media and the left.
In the second lockdown, the feeling is no longer fear, it is despair and anger. It is the furious realization that all that time was squandered and that as a nation we will still refuse to take any proactive steps that could have political costs for Netanyahu.
It is the hopelessness of not really seeing an end in sight, and having no faith in our leaders to get us there. There is also an awareness that no matter how much you’re following the rules, countless people everywhere around you are flaunting them. And they hardly make much sense to begin with.
In the first lockdown, there was this sense of solidarity. A feeling that we’re all in this together, all of us screaming into the void as one – wearing masks and socially distanced – having no clue what we should expect.
This time there are no memes with friends in various countries on lockdown, no quarantine playlists, no pics of what we’re baking and drinking while we stumble through this novel thing called a lockdown.
This time it’s just life as we now know it, with the thought hovering in the back of my mind – did we have a chance to escape and we missed it?
The economy has been ravaged and there is a devastating loss of life (1,719 dead by Oct. 5th) that is accompanied by a mystifying sort of silence. Between October 3rd and 4th, 37 Israelis died of COVID-19 (7 more than the Park Hotel bombing in 2002), between the 2nd and the 3rd, 49 Israelis died (more than double the Dolphinarium bombing in 2001), and between September 29th and 30th, 41 Israelis died (10 more than the 2003 Maxim and 2002 Cafe Moment bombings combined).
Other than their families, I don’t know if hardly anybody knows their names, and almost no one was able to attend their funerals or shivas anyway.
In a couple years there will be a committee of inquiry, just like after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the Carmel Fire in 2010, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and countless other national fiascos.
Some people will be held accountable, but other than the dead and the forever impoverished, few will pay a price for this.
It’s now up to each person to take care of themselves and their family, and it didn’t need to be this way
We’re all here because we’re not all there
I went to college in the same town I grew up in, the same college my father went to, in the middle of a state everyone on both sides of my family was from (and if not, then they were from Louisiana). My horizons never stretched very far, until I went on a free trip to Israel in my last semester in college. I learned it was a place I could live for a minute, so when I graduated, I left.
When I was a young kid I went to a summer camp in the Texas Hill Country (Echo Hill Ranch) that was, objectively speaking – and in a very good way – a weird place. An entire book could be written about or at least inspired by the place (one basically was), and among a million traditions, songs, and tall tales, I also remember this saying I heard there – “we’re all here because we’re not all there.”
I have spent nearly two decades thinking of that line, and how it applies to so many of the friends and colleagues I’ve had in Israel, who came and went and in some cases passed away over the years.
They were young Americans raised by Israeli parents in the States, Israelis raised by American parents in Israel, British-Israeli Jews, Third Culture Kids, Americans and assorted English speakers who married and divorced Israelis, came here for five minutes 20 years ago, and spent two decades trying to explain why they’re here. They worked as journalists, content writers, high-tech workers (content writers), online casino or porn site customer service reps, and telemarketers selling everything from prescription drugs from China to custom (fake) college diplomas to Americans by way of phones rigged to look like the call is coming from the States.
Many – especially journalists like myself – were looking for a life-less-ordinary, to travel the region and beyond, to be part of history in the making in the Middle East, or at least to write for a living and have fun while doing it. But whatever you did for a living, there was the joy of living in Tel Aviv in your 20s, spending countless nights in a club, a sherut, a park bench or a bar – like one of those people adrift in the background of a certain Eviatar Banai video.
There is a magnetism to that life, but as much as this place does have its pulls, I think most of the people I’ve known here were like me – they were pushed here, running towards a new start or just swept up in the lack of a better idea.
Many were here because they weren’t like everybody else back home. They weren’t all there, and if that hadn’t been the case, they would have never been here. They may have also thought that a new beginning really is a clean slate, and that all the problems and pain they had in their former home wouldn’t follow them there.
In such a case, Israel can be the thing that saves you or the experience can be something that brings you down further. Israel gave me a fascinating career I would have never had in America, forced me to learn a foreign language, was the springboard to see dozens of countries on three continents, and it introduced me to a whole constellation of brilliant and bizarre friends and colleagues from around the world.
Most importantly, it was how I met my wife, which would have never happened in the States because there is no one like her there or anywhere else. It was also where I became a father, and built almost all my experiences as a parent of young children.
In 2016, after 14 years in Israel, a decade as a journalist, an Intifada, a few wars, a bunch of elections, another [stabbing] intifada, 10+ apartments, and two kids, we decided to move to Austin for a year, and shut the door on Israel.
The wayback and the never-will-be
We arrived in Austin in August 2016 and hit a Babies R Us megastore the next day. Amazing selection! The first days were like any previous short trip to the States – full of visits to giant stores with vast selections of reasonably-priced stuff in giant containers.
There was a lot of getting reacquainted with everyday things I would quickly learn to take for granted again – half my cousins and all of my uncles have trucks, everyone drinks, there is football every day of the week now, people have whole conversations about tacos.
Mainly though, there was this great feeling that you can just see people at your leisure, there isn’t any rush to try to cram in visits with friends and family because you’re leaving in two weeks. You’re just here now, you live in the same city, and you can meet up anytime you like.
In the end, I learned that even if I’m actually in Austin I don’t see most people much more than I do when I’m overseas but the feeling that you could just have a normal relationship now, was a great relief.
My days were spent caring for our daughters, going to the grocery store, and watching the news with an ever-worsening feeling of dread as the 2016 election approached. After election night, the feeling was more like an insult, or, this embarrassing realization that I had picked now of all times to move back to the States with my family, as an-almost majority of American voters had decided to send us all head-first over the edge into whatever hellscape the last four years have been.
Apparently, you can run away from your past career as a writer but that will be how the world sees you, and you should dance with who brung ya. I haven’t looked back since.
The move back was also sparked by my father’s sudden death in 2014. It left me with a feeling of time lost, and a desire to be with friends and family before it’s too late.
In Austin, I realized almost instantly how much his absence is felt in every facet of the city for me, no matter how much it changes. It’s still a great place, and my amazing mom and the rest of my family are there, but that year was full of painful reminders of a father and a hometown lost.
By August, a year after we’d arrived, my wife and daughters and I left Austin. And just like that, Israel saved me a second time.
The third state solution
Last month, I filled out a request for an absentee ballot for the presidential election. At the top of the form it had two relevant options – I am a U.S. citizen living outside the country, and I intend to return; and I am a U.S. citizen living outside the country, and my return is uncertain. Both of these have been true for almost two decades.
For the past several years, especially since November 2016, the U.S. has declined at a rapid pace, well before the completely preventable human tragedy that has so far cost the lives of well over 200,000 Americans.
This is also without even talking about race, health care, guns, climate change, and any other major existential issues that put the very future of the country in doubt. And no matter what happens in November, I believe the damage caused by the past four years will never be fully undone.
I hear friends in the U.S. talking about leaving the country, and while some people made remarks like that back when George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, this time it seems more serious. I also think they’re rational, and they’re thinking practically, not just emotionally.
In Israel, there is chaos. The pandemic is completely out of control, the acrimony in the politics is worse than at any point since I’ve lived here, the economy is in a free fall, the cost of living is sky high and always will be, and unlike in my 20s, I no longer have a grasp on the youthful idea that things will or can actually be better here.
I’ve spent the past 17 or so years with a foot in two worlds – here and there. If I’m here I compare everything to there – and vice versa. But when both of your countries are in collapse, what can you do? What happens when neither feels like a great option anymore?
Lately, I’ve thought more and more that maybe I’ve been going about this the wrong way. It’s not Israel or the U.S., it’s whichever one vs somewhere else, a third country. It’s the idea that maybe it doesn’t have to be a choice between two countries in deep peril.
I have no idea what this third country could be, though my wife and daughters are Canadian citizens and that would probably make the most sense. For now at least, I’ve found comfort and a new daydream to get lost in, hammering out the details of the “Third State Solution.”
When I think about being an immigrant, and the way (conservative) people talk about immigrants in the States, it doesn’t really sit right. There is this approach that there are bad immigrants and good immigrants who “contribute to society.” In other words, we judge them on the net benefit they have brought to their adopted country.
I never saw it like this. I feel that Israel was good for me, that the country gave me more than I gave back, and it’s an experience I would wish upon any immigrant to the States.
This country gave me a career, my family, and a million life-changing experiences I would have never had anywhere else.
But someday I’d like to stop repaying the debt.
Someday, I’d like to just be.