Alon Velan, an Israeli reporter and editor at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, wasn’t sure what to expect on his leave of absence in Tucson. Here for a year with his wife, Hadas, who has a postdoctoral fellowship in psychology at the University of Arizona, and their two young children, he’s discovered that “we’re on a big adventure.”
“This is the best place I’ve been in the United States,” Velan told the AJP. “People are more relaxed, everything is calm. People are polite and smiling. In Israel, people drive like maniacs. Here it’s so much better.”
Velan had previously spent time in Michigan and Miami, he says, “but this is the Wild West. I grew up watching a lot of westerns so it’s been incredible watching people drive around in big pick-ups, wearing cowboy hats.” No surprises there.
He wasn’t prepared for a visit by Christian neighbors who were strong supporters of Israel a few nights after his family settled in last August. “They wanted to meet the people from Israel. They wanted to hug us,” says Velan. “I’ve never encountered this before. I haven’t encountered any criticism of ‘what you’re doing to Palestinians’ or anything like that, which I have encountered in Europe.”
As in Israel, Tucson’s Jewish community is very diverse. “It’s not one mass. Some are critical of Israeli policies, the same as in Israel, the same as me,” he says, adding that “this isn’t anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Why not expect criticism, diverse views, from Jews abroad?”
Living in Tucson has given Velan “a much wider perspective of how American Jews see Israel.” It has also provided an opportunity to view Israeli society from afar. What Americans don’t understand about Israel is that “a lot of Israelis are more interested in social movements than in the Israeli-Palestinian stagnation. The Palestinians live many miles away.”
A bigger problem may be “Israel losing something by becoming ultra-religious,” says Velan. “Some Israelis are more worried about that than the Palestinians. The ultra-Orthodox don’t serve in the army. They say, ‘We put our trust in God. He will save us from the Palestinians.’
“Many Israelis don’t think this is fair,” he continues. “You hear ultra-Orthodox government ministers say that people who pray are more important than people who fight. Why can’t you do both? Who are they to say I’m not as important because I’m not praying all the day. I’m a Jew who believes in God.”
Velan, who served in the Israel Defense Forces for three years after he turned 18, returns to his combat unit in a tank battalion for 30 days every year in the reserves. He encountered some violence during his service, and notes, “I was lucky in the Lebanon War. We were in the right place at the right time.”
A sense of fairness as an Israeli — and a journalist — is important to Velan. “Israelis love the U.S. They want to be like the U.S. Israelis think that everyone in the U.S. is rich. I’ve learned there’s a new kind of poverty in the United States, which isn’t due to Democrats or Republicans. Since I was last here society has changed. There have always been poor Americans but now I see people going to work from dawn to dusk, and still not making a decent living — not enough to keep yourself healthy, or for health insurance, or to provide a good education for your children.”
Suddenly, he says, “I appreciate the benefits of living in the socialist state of Israel.” Consider his one trip to a U.S. doctor, which cost around $500, including tests and medication, which in Israel would be around $10.
It was a bit of a shock to realize “not everything is perfect in the United States; not everything is Porsches and Hollywood. As a journalist I have the responsibility to show the whole picture,” says Velan.
When the family returns to Israel in August, Velan plans to produce a TV series for IBA on American poverty. In preparation, he’s been interviewing people referred to him through Tucson’s Primavera Foundation and other organizations.
Discovering how widespread poverty is here “had a major affect on me. In Israel some businessmen, high-tech entrepreneurs and the prime minister want to eliminate social benefits. That’s nonsense.
“I didn’t see it before, but some power in Israel stems from socialism. People aren’t afraid, because they have social benefits. Here people are so afraid to lose their jobs, their health insurance. Socialism is not just a theory. It’s good for us. It makes citizens feel more connected” to their country.
Socialism is good for the economy, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit, says Velan. “We can combine the two. I don’t understand why people who get good salaries don’t want to pay taxes. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the highest-paying jobs. Paying taxes to help people who make minimum wage is a real Jewish [value] from the Bible.
“The richest in society will always benefit anyway,” he says. “They’ll still be rich. A little bit should go to the poorest among us.”
There’s good and bad in both Israel and the United States, says Velan. “I’d like to see Israel’s social benefits exported to the U.S.”