Jewish Character Traits in Israel
|Like any nation, the modern state
of Israel has a discernible collective psychological attitude: a communal
"personality." It is formed at its core by the conviction that Israel is
a Jewish island, a people under constant siege by hostile goyim. A key
ingredient of the Israeli public persona, much championed, is that Jews
are tough, emotionally hardened, and ruthless, a self-image epitomized
in the "sabra" (literally meaning a cactus fruit, but colloquially meaning
a Jew born in Israel). In popular Israeli folklore, the Jews of Israel
are "thorny and tough on the outside, but soft inside."
The sabra image also has deep psychological sources in the nationalist "lessons" learned from the Holocaust, a situation where a perceived lack of Jewish physical force and power in the diaspora (galut) throughout the world inevitably must -- sooner or later -- lead to disaster at the hands of Gentiles.
Zionism, in whatever form, has invariably dovetailed with some of the central tenets of classical religious Judaism, including the old "people apart" syndrome: Jewish alienation from all other peoples. "The civil religion [of Israel]," notes Charles Liebman and Eliezer Dov-Yehiya, "has been most forceful in asserting that Israel is an isolated nation confronting a hostile world ... The growing importance of traditional Judaism and Jewishness is associated with the centrality of the Holocaust as the primary political myth of Israeli society, the symbol of Israel's present condition and the one which provides Israel with legitimacy ... The Holocaust to a great extent fashions 'our national consciousness' and the memory is omnipresent in Israeli society."
"Israeli political culture," says Israeli professor Myron Aronoff, "reflects not only the general theme of the few against the many, but a growing emphasis of 'them against us' ... The traditional concept of Esau hates Jacob [Gentiles hate Jews] and a nation that dwells alone became explanations of reality and legitimization of Israeli policy." As former lobbyist for Israel Doug Bloomfield once noted, some Israelis tend to have a "You owe us" and "Screw the world" attitudes. Zev Chafets remembers an Israeli concert he attended in 1969, two years after he moved to Israel from America: "As the show drew to a close, the group swung into an up-temp number. 'Ha'olam Ku'lo heg'denu,' they sang. 'The whole world is against us.' The audience knew the song and joined in on the chorus ... [:] 'The whole world is against us; never mind, we'll get by; we don't give a damn about them anyway.'"
Jewish scholar Daniel Niewyk describes the racist dimension of this Zionist ideology of alienation from others, especially as it developed in Germany:
At the heart of the Zionist critique of liberal assimilation lay the conviction that Jews constitute a unique race. It was the belief in insurmountable racial differences that made the inevitability of anti-Semitism credible, just as it rationalizes the view that every effort to assimilate must go aground on the barrier reef of biological determinism ... The maintenance of that [racial] purity was essential to German Zionism, for it acknowledged the essential prerequisite for nationhood to be [in the 1922 words of Zionist Fritz Kahn] "consanguinity of the flesh and solidarity of the soul" together with the "will to establish a closer [Jewish] brotherhood over [and] against all other communities on earth."Amnon Rubenstein notes the disturbing irony expressed in this world view of the Israeli people: "The establishment of Israel was an attempt to make Jews like everybody else. They would now have a state. It has not worked out that way. Israel has made Jews more, not less, exceptional. The pariah people, it seems, have simply succeeded in creating a pariah state." Perhaps, however, this situation is inevitable. Unmentioned by Rubenstein is the religiously-based "nation apart" self-concept always so deeply embedded in Jewish mass psychology, a self-understanding and communal choice that apparently cannot be shaken, even in a secular nation-state context.
Non-Jewish scholar Virginia Dominguez, who spent long periods of time in Israel in later years doing research, noted the traditional Jewish narcissism and interest in pedigrees of identity expressed by the Israelis she met:
"What do you mean you say you are not Jewish?" I was asked on several occasions. "That you're not religious? That your mother wasn't Jewish? That 'we the Jews' wouldn't count you as a Jew because you had some Jewish ancestry but not the right ones, according to Halacha?" I was incredulous at first. I had no way then to anticipate this reaction. Everything else seemed to point to the importance of Jewishness, and to controlling both the content and limits of Jewishness.The omnipresent stresses of a predominantly military state, the emphatic "we versus them" paradigm of traditional Jewish identity, the glorification of power and aggression, millennia-old disdain for non-Jews, and the emotional powder keg of Holocaust death camps as a motivational tool have invariably led to the noxious Israeli collective persona that is so much remarked upon by non-Israelis (often even Israelis themselves) who spend much time in Israel. Common traits of this "national character" are arrogance, insolence (chutzpah), coldness, roughness, and rudeness, to begin a long list of unpleasant "uncivil" attributes.
Many Diaspora Jews, in describing this Israeli character, tend to romanticize it. "There is a coldness," notes Jewish scholar Norman Cantor, "a mystery, a distance from humanity about [Israelis] that anyone from another country who lives and works in Israel for a half a year will be impressed by." "Israelis have a reputation for bad manners," notes Jewish American immigrant to Israel Charles Liebman, "to the extent this reputation is deserved it stems from the sense of familiarity that Israelis feel towards one another." Adam Garfinkle adds that "Israelis are sometimes rude to an extent that it even bothers other Israelis." "The behavior of young Israelis," Israeli Jay Gonen writes, "... is characterized by a high degree of chutzpah or gall; it is direct, blatant, unruly, clever, humorous, and indicates a certain lack of sensitivity to social requirements ... [It has a] disregard for rules, regulations, social norms, and good manners." Melford Spiro, in his study of the kibbutzim, discusses "insolence" as an "outstanding characteristic of the sabras" (native-born Israelis).
Herbert Russcol -- a Jewish American emigrant to Israel -- and his sabra wife Margarit Banai described the Israeli national character this way:
"Horror stories" about the chutzpah -- of the sabra-men, women, and children alike -- are notorious. What appears to be (and often is) their cheek, their insolence, has shocked and enraged everyone who has met them. Sabras freely admit their chutzpah as a people, but are rarely aware of being chutzpadik themselves. They will tell you, "Oh, we're terrible. It's a national vice. I am not so bad, but I have some very rude friends" ... Chutzpah is alarmingly close to chauvinism, and it must be admitted that the sabra is usually passionately chaunvinistic in an era when no gospel has been more discredited in the West than blind, excessive patriotism."The deliberate and unadorned frankness [of Israelis]," notes Zionist historian Melvin Urofsky, "so highly prized by Israelis, scornful of Westernized and 'assimilated' manners, struck [Jewish] Americans [who sought to live in Israel], accustomed to some courtesies in life, as downright rude. (As late as 1965, a study of bureaucratic behavior in one large Israeli enterprise disclosed that 60 per cent of officials in contact with the public did not believe in greeting a visitor, nor would they reply to his greeting; an even higher percentage would not offer him a chair, simply letting him stand during the interview.)
Such attributes, it may be recalled, are among those that Jews have been noted for across the centuries. Leon Poliakov rhetorically remarks on the inevitable echo here in the European Jewish past: "Are the Jews congenitally unsociable and rude, or are they this way as a result of having been segregated in ghettos? Such was the form of the question in which arguments raged [among non-Jewish intellectuals] in the 18th century on the eve of Emancipation."
As Joyce Starr notes: "Among Americans who have had extensive dealings with Israelis, whether in government, business, or Jewish circles, the first adjectives that comes to their lips are arrogant, willful, and sometimes infuriating." Ms. Starr, who is also Jewish, notes the interchange she had with a man called J.R., "a high-ranking Israeli intelligence officer":
"Most Americans I interviewed in the government sphere -- the State Department, Defense Department -- use certain words when they describe Israelis.""To the brief tourist," wrote Leonard Wolf, a Jewish resident of Israel in 1970, "[Israelis] are a rude, unsympathetic people, intent on themselves, irresponsive to nuances of feeling. Americans, who are instantly, if not profoundly, genial, are apt to find the slow pace of Israeli friendliness cold, comparing the Jewish hotelkeepers and tourist guides they meet unfavorably with the extraordinarily warm Arabs."
In 2001, a Jewish ethnic newspaper, the Forward, noted that the national Israeli propensity to be cheats and hustlers (always evasive of the law) probably had roots in Jewish history in other lands:
[There is] universal awareness that something is definitely rotten in the state of Israel. This is, after all, a country in which bending the rules is said to be a national pasttime, cutting corners a way of life and cheating the authorities the proof of merit ... Sticklers for the law are ridiculed and abused, where anyone who works by the book is branded a sap, a "freier," the worst insult in modern Israeli lexicon ... Many people believe Israeli laxity, which borders on anarchy, is a national personality trait that cannot be eradicated by laws alone. Some trace the trait all the way back to the historical Jewish Diaspora, where Jews often found solace in bending the rules imposed by the often anti-Semitic authorities.In 1986, B. Z. Sobel, an Israeli sociologist at the University of Haifa, discussed his research into reasons why so many Israelis emigrate from Israel to other lands. Among the motivations for leaving, he noted that "there is indeed an edginess [in Israeli society]; tempers flare, and verbal violence is rampant ... A large proportion of those [Israelis] interviewed for my study ... have been abroad [overseas] or were born or raised abroad, and in almost all cases reference is made to the fact that 'people are nice in chutz la'aretz.' Strangers wish you a good day as they make change or pass you in the street, whereas at home [Israel] you can consider yourself fortunate to receive minimally civil treatment."
"Americans are much more polite, I would say," remarked Israeli journalist Ze'ev Schiff, "while we are rude and have no patience ... You can see it when some of us are waiting in a queue in a bank or waiting for a bus ... This is the way we deal with each other, with the Egyptians, the Europeans, whoever." As Joyce Starr adds: "The tension [in Israel] spills out in sudden eruptions of rudeness. You can be standing in line in a gas station, and suddenly there will be an outbreak of shouts and terrible cursing for no apparent reason except that people explode in Israel."
Moshe Shokeid notes the comments of an Israeli identified as "Eli," and his perceptions of the Israelis he met in New York City: "When I looked at the crowd, I subconsciously saw myself in the mirror. When you see other Israelis screaming in Hebrew, you realize that you possibly look the same. Unfortunately, I rediscovered the ugly Israeli."
In the 1980s, Virginia Dominguez, a Cuban American sociologist, fluent in Hebrew and a Fulbright scholar in Israel, worried that obnoxious Israeli behavior and Jewish self-obsession threatened to push her into the camp of the anti-Semites:
Has my obsessive, long-term encounter with Israeli society over the past six years turned me into the anti-Semite I never was? I find myself sharply intolerant of the noisy, brash behavior of most Israeli children. I coin terms of description that are even explicitly judgmental. I get exasperated with the perennial references in the [Hebrew] media to the Jewishness of well-known public figures abroad.Wendy Orange, a Jewish American, a new immigrant to Israel, noted with irritation the commentary of a group of Christian visitors she overheard in Jerusalem restaurant:
I overheard one Ghanaian woman say, "Just ghastly, these people!" She's talking to a pregnant Irish woman, who responded wholeheartedly: "I never imagined they'd be so crude ... so rude." The Ghanaian, tall and dignified, her hair wrapped high in a colorful African sash, became more emphatic: "No manners ... They drive like madmen." She paused. "They are far more barbarian than I was warned. And I was warned, my dear, many times."In 2001, Great Britain's online Telegraph newspaper noted
Israelis -- who take pride in being blunt and outspoken -- are to teach children good manners in an attempt to cut the nation's tendency towards violence. From the next school year, 12-year-olds will be taught how to behave politely, which knife and fork to use at table, and how to resolve arguments without shouting or coming to blows. Ronit Tirosh, director-general of the Education Ministry said: "We are a brutal and impatient society, and the delicacy learned through these lessons may reduce our society's violent tendencies." Israelis are proud not to say thank you and relish the informality of life ... Israeli life is a bruising contest of one-upmanship. The deepest fear is to be thought a "sucker" who obeys the rules. Brusqueness has been cultivated by native-born Israelis as a reaction against the manners of Europe's Diaspora Jews, who were seen as cringing and subservient ... Educationalists have become worried about the level of playground violence.Traditional Jewish chutzpah is of course an integral part of the Israeli identity. "To a large degree," says Israeli professor Jay Gonen, "... Herzl's impact [on Jewish nationalism] was due to a quality of chutzpah, or unmitigated gall, which became an integral part of Zionism and was subsequently elevated almost to an art form by native-born Israelis, or sabras." An example of how far this chutzpah can go was evidenced in an incident during the Palestinian uprising -- known as the Intifada -- that began in 1987 against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. Of the hundreds of Palestinians shot and killed or wounded by Israeli troops in the Intifada's first year, one young Arab teenager, Nasir Hawwash, was shot in the head and lay in a hospital, irrecoverably brain dead. One day Nasir's brother received a telephone call from a Jewish Israeli citizen, an emissary for the family of a fellow middle-aged Israeli in the hospital with a serious heart condition. The stranger on the phone asked that the Hawwash family donate Nasir's heart to save the Jewish man in the hospital who needed it.
"Nasir's older brother," notes Glenn Frankel, "was appalled that an Israeli would ask such a thing. She told him, 'This is how we'll make peace between Arabs and Jews.' He was not buying it. 'How can you make peace when you shoot someone and then you take the heart to give life to another Israeli?' he told her."
As the story for the heart request made the Israeli news, one Palestinian "radical" noted that "If we give the Israelis this heart, soon they'll be shooting us for our organs."
The Arab boy's father was eventually offered "more money than [his] family would have seen in a lifetime" for his son's heart, but he told the Israeli pleaders no. "What did they want from me?" he asked. "This was my son. They took him away, then they wanted his body. This I could not give."
The preceding text is excerpted from When Victims Rule, online at Jewish Tribal Review. The title is editorial; JTR's in-text citations have been removed. I have added the excerpt from Kevin MacDonald.