YEARS AGO, a prominent Israeli official told me that a fundamental difference between Israelis and Americans was that Israel was a one-issue country and America was not. For Israelis, he said, the single most important, most talked-about issue was security.
For America, a country of a quarter of a billion people of diverse origin, character and interests, there is a multitude of issues - ranging from war and peace, to the economy, the arts, sex, crime, education, religion, abortion. Any one of these and many others could dominate the national debate.
The Israeli, Avi Pazner, now a close associate of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was right about security being the single issue that persistently dominates discussions in Israel. Whether Israel is trying to make peace or make war, security is the issue. And he would still be right about America.
Back then, I thought, Americans were lucky to be able to care passionately about so many issues. But back then, the Cold War notwithstanding, America was not at war. Now it is, for better or for worse, rightly or wrongly, in wise or unwise ways.
So now I'm not so sure about the intrusion of other "issues." The way in which we allow, yea even encourage, them to dominate the national discourse seems appalling. For these are not the life or death issues that should remain our focus.
This came to mind at the end of a week in which America seemed to be obsessed with Mel Gibson's snuff film about the crucifixion of Jesus, and with gay marriages, or weddings, or unions - whatever. It was the last week in a month that began, mind you, with a huge hullabaloo over the baring of Janet Jackson's breast at the conclusion of a pretty vile Super Bowl halftime show.
I did not see the breast moment, and I have not seen Gibson's film. This might place me outside of the American mainstream. For the sake of full disclosure, I was not interested in Britney Spears' short-lived marriage in Las Vegas. I have barely followed that other obsession, the Martha Stewart case (poor Martha). The abiding media fixation with the Scott Peterson murder case baffles me. The Michael Jackson case makes me wonder what the rest of the world must think of us. I have never watched a "reality" show.
I do have an opinion about the Mel Gibson film, even though I haven't seen it. Here's what I think: I think it's a movie and nothing more. The real cause of fascination is how Gibson, with the enthusiastic assistance of the national and international media, got one of the biggest publicity free rides I think I have ever witnessed. Every newspaper - including this one - covered the film, its making and all of the discussion about what it all means with more ink than any story since Bill and Monica. Every cable and network television and radio medium has been full of palaver about the film. The pope was even dragged into the story.
The publicity reached a crushing mass last week to practically everybody's distraction.
Except for the intrusion of the gay-marriage issue, that is.
Unlike the movie that people were obsessing about last week, this is reality, whether you're for it or against. It is reality for men and women who are homosexual and who are discriminated against because they are. Homosexuals who want to share their lives are discriminated against in ways that do not apply even to criminals.
I have friends and colleagues who are homosexuals. They tend to be honest, caring, interested and interesting men and women and loving people. They include devout Christians - Catholics and Protestants - Jews and a Muslim.
Sure there are outrageous gays. Some gays are not gay at all; they are sullen and angry. Some straight people are outrageous, too. Some are not straight at all; they're crooked. And some, we know, are downright perverted. But they can get a marriage license without any trouble at all.
What harm is done to anyone by allowing homosexuals to unite legally so that their partnership can enjoy the same benefits that heterosexual Americans do? How does allowing people who care deeply and devotedly for each other to join in the institution of marriage threaten the institution itself? The first couple to marry in San Francisco had been together for 50 years. That's a lot longer than most Americans make it.
The attention the story received was not troubling. Unlike the others, this is not about entertainment or entertainers; it is about fairness and equality. And it worries people.
What bothered me was that the president of the United States, the leader of the most powerful, most democratic nation in the world, grabbed the issue to pander to conservative religious forces he needs to help himself get re-elected. He announced that he would press for an amendment to the constitution in "defense of marriage" as a union only between a man and a woman.
Marriage does need its defenders. American marriages are endangered and breaking up all the time, and laws against homosexual marriages won't do a thing to help them.
But the president surely has greater dangers he ought to be concentrating on and doing whatever he can to make sure Americans stay focused on what's important and perilous.
So, could we be a little more Israeli about this?
There's a war on. America's security is threatened by al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden and his henchmen are still out there. Meanwhile, people are still dying in Iraq and we need to know if going there was necessary and good. Our enemies are not distracted by movies or issues that question their manhood.
Think about that. Please.