President Obama is visiting my adopted country and excitement is in the air. The moment he stepped from his plane onto the soil of this Middle Eastern country, a palpable feeling reverberated. Dad is here, I felt. America -- the country of my provenance, the blood in my veins, the land of my ancestors -- is in da house.
I live in a very small, very storied and controversial country that is besieged on every border and by critics around the world. My new country is about the size of Vancouver Island or New Jersey and is inhabited by just under 8 million people. You can get lost in America, you can disappear. Not so here. There's nowhere to go.
Israel has a powerfully influential culture of family, obligation, discipline, tradition and connectedness. Everybody knows everybody, it seems. The laws here are harsher and social pressure to behave is powerful and sometimes a bit oppressive from my freer, more individual American perspective. There is an absence of the open road, manifest destiny, cowboy, yippee ki-yay ethos that is so specifically American. Sometimes I miss that.
Just under 200,000 survivors of the Holocaust live in my country. And innumerable refugees from Europe and North Africa. This is a country of traumatized survivors, immigrants starting over and a marginalized indigenous population fighting for an identity. It is a potent and too often incendiary mix.
The U.S. managed to neatly steamroll over both the experience of Native American Indians and the awareness of that genocide quite effectively. Few point fingers anymore. No, we think of cowboys and Indians, not small pox, lies and internment camps. Here the book is not yet closed; the conflict plays out in a public sphere and this is why my adopted country is scrutinized and draws sharp criticism with a push and a pull that seems to deflect solutions.
My new country, the ancient birthplace of monotheism, struggles with 21st century problems just as much as any other country. Domestic violence, sexual assault, drugs, education, security, inequality, racism, the impact of online pornography. The panoply of modern ills is a democratic and quite moveable feast.
Counter-balancing those realities is the fact that the state of Israel is quite unapologetically like a very stern father. If you do as you are told, you will be rewarded. If you do not, you will be punished. Simple as that. Expectations are clear.
The government in America is like a terrible weekend dad; absent much of the time, and a fan of pretty girls, self-serving half-truths, booze, porn, sports and, most of all, winners. Maybe you'll fall through the cracks, maybe you won't, but if you're a good-looking winner or a spectacularly dramatic failure, you'll get the attention you crave. There are no boundaries, no discipline, no sense of a collective right thing. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I really think there used to be.
The tenets of America -- of freedom, equality and liberty -- the right to pursue happiness, to flourish economically and the right to free speech and expression are an experiment that have elevated the United States to heights of courage, leadership and something like transcendence.
But something horrifying is happening in America and it seems to be gaining momentum. America, the light among nations, the great experiment, is beginning to crumble under its own weight. How can we pick up the torch of liberty and light but at the same time insist on decency and humanity -- some basic rules of behavior?
Living abroad, I generally rebut negative comments about America with historical and social context. The spill of history is not so simple. How did we get here? is not an easy question to answer, especially when we still do not know where we are going or whether we have arrived. But I find it is growing increasingly difficult to defend the trends of violence, rape and gun culture in America.
The Steubenville rape case has spun America into a painful conversation about "rape culture." The Sandy Hook tragedy is continuing to provoke dialogue about the need for gun control. The economic collapse of 2008 continues to radiate its impact globally and increasingly, there is an awareness of the disproportionate wealth and power of the 1 percent and a near-extinct middle class. America is coming face to face with a culture that has unwittingly bred greed, sex and violence as an outcome of liberty. Is this the inevitable price of freedom?
I have to think that the American can-do spirit of individuality and adventure, our pride in being a one of a kind nation, with freedom and liberty for all will find a way through this time of social and economic crisis. But how? I worry about another revolution in America and then chide myself for being paranoid. But the 1 percent in America controls a percentage of wealth not dissimilar to the distribution of wealth held by the aristocrats and monarchy in Russia before the violent revolution that changed the history of the world forever.
Watching my worst fears for America slowly coming true from abroad throws it into a harsher light. I have no illusions that I live in a perfect country -- far from it and impossible to declare -- but I look at America from afar and I am increasingly frightened. How could the teenagers involved in the horrifying Steubenville rape case have been so inhuman? What created the possibility for that? How could Sandy Hook have happened, and the Aurora, Colo., shooting not long before it and Columbine and so many other mass shootings in America?
Is America just too geographically big with an absent parent and too much freedom? Is this what we become when we're home alone for the weekend? We raise Lord of the Flies-like teenagers who savage a drunk child at an unsupervised party and then boast about it? Is this the Less Than Zero America, too distanced from itself to take humanity seriously? Has the Facebook, online dating, take-out, pre-packaged, car culture of America, the big-box stores, the freeways and conveniences created a nation disconnected from its soul?
Obama is in Israel and all eyes are turned toward him. What he says, what he does and who he visits is debated, weighed and analyzed. America is in da house, all right, but can Israel -- or any country -- look to America as an example anymore? Or is America in its last throes, a decadent empire, collapsing on itself from within?
Please say it ain't so. We need a Hail Mary right now. We need to move forward on gay rights and equality, we need to "just say no" to gun violence, we need to educate our children about human decency, kindness and the value of community. We need to connect with one another again.