I spend a good deal of my life thinking and talking about the flaws of Israel, about the immoral occupation, the political and socioeconomic inequality, the blatant racism and the state-sponsored religious monopoly. As president of the board of the New Israel Fund, which for 40 years has been actively working to create a more just and democratic society, it is my responsibility to recognize and seek redress for these societal ills. And there is more than enough work for a lifetime.
What draws me to this work is a deep connection to that place and its people, which I first discovered at age 11, when I made my first visit. Israel is part of my soul in the most profound ways. In many ways, it is where I feel most at home, where a good deal of my professional work is based and where some of my closest friends in the world, Palestinians and Jews alike, live.
On a recent visit, I was reminded of what I love about the place — the intimacy, the concern for others, the can-do attitude, the sense of belonging (even across religious and national lines). All of this issued from a single act of forgetfulness: I left my glasses in a taxi just as I was about to meet a fellow professor whom I had not seen in 25 years. As soon as I entered the main gate of his campus, I realized that I did not have my glasses, without which it would be hard for me to navigate the world. My colleague greeted me as I was fumbling with the taxi receipt, trying to see if there was any information on it other than the driver’s name.
Immediately, my friend sprang into action. The taxi driver happened to mention to me that he had studied at the institution where he had dropped me off. My friend immediately took me to his school’s administrative center, where he asked a very friendly staff colleague to see if the name of the driver appeared in the data base. Alas, it did not, so we went off to my colleague’s office. Here we sat down and explained the situation to his research assistant, who listened with one ear and then returned to his other tasks. A few minutes later, the research assistant, whose name quite fittingly is the Hebrew word for “help” (Ezra), surprised us by announcing that he had come up with the driver’s home phone number. We called and tried him, but no answer. A few minutes later, Ezra announced that he had found the driver’s Facebook page. We quickly sent him a message, though also observed that he was not particularly active on social media. Now it was just a matter of waiting to see if he would return the message.
Meanwhile, my colleague and I got caught up in an engrossing conversation about work. After an hour or so, I had to move on to my next appointment. We hadn’t yet heard back from the driver. We walked back through the university’s main gate on the way to my next taxi, where we stopped to see if the driver had by chance noticed the glasses and brought them there. He had not. But the guard, Mustapha, heard my story and quickly took charge. He asked for the receipt, noticed the driver’s name, and quickly got through to the customer service agents at the Gett Taxi online reservation app, which we had failed to reach earlier. He asked after our driver, but did not succeed in finding anything about him. Still, Mustapha made clear that he would not only continue to search, but would succeed in finding the driver and glasses. I left the college somewhat buoyed by his optimism.
Fifteen minutes into my journey further north, Ezra called to say he had found the cell number of the driver (I didn’t ask questions about how). Moreover, he had spoken with him. The driver was at home and was planning to get back into his taxi a half-hour later. He would check the backseat then. Meanwhile, I had arrived at the home of a beloved former student whose wife had recently given birth to twins. Amidst the excitement, I recounted the tale of my glasses. We had a delightful visit. Shortly before I was about to leave, I called Ezra. He informed me that the driver had found the glasses and would be in touch with me.
“Chasdei Hashem,” to borrow the memorable exclamation of Reb Shulem of “Shtisel” fame. Praise the Lord! Now I had to figure out how to be reunited with my glasses. It was 7 p.m. I was in Kfar Sava, about 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. The driver was in Holon, about five miles south of Tel Aviv. I called the driver with the aim of making a plan to get them to me. No answer. I called about 10 times throughout the night. No answer. I had to leave for Jerusalem the next day at noon.
After a fitful night of sleep, I woke up early and waited until what I thought was a reasonable hour, 7:20, to call. The driver answered and immediately said: “Don’t you know that taxi drivers need to sleep, too?” I began to apologize for phoning too early, but he broke in to say: “Don’t be silly. I’ve been up for ages. I have the glasses. Where are you?” I told him the address of my hotel in downtown Tel Aviv — and he was there within five minutes.
As he handed over my glasses, he asked me if I remembered what he had studied at the college where the drama had begun. Yes, I said, you majored in “how to be a mensch.” We both laughed, and I put on my glasses, now able to see the world around me, including the thick web of social relations and “ekhpatiyut” (caring-ness) in which Israel, at its best, can so wonderfully excel. When I left Israel two days later, I recalled both the warmth of the human encounters I’d had — and the sadness I felt that the thick web did not extend to all within the country. That remains our ongoing work.
David N. Myers holds the Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA and is president of the board of the New Israel Fund.