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Savir's Corner: The Israeli
By URI SAVIR
24/01/2013
Israelis know they deserve better and in the long run will probably not tolerate abuse.
 
In the past four months, we have been dealing with the question of who will lead and represent Israel and Israelis. A no less significant question arises as to who is the Israeli being represented? There is no easy answer, given that we are a melting pot of an immigrant society with a tremendous diversity of backgrounds and historical experiences.

The Israeli identity is more important to most Israelis than our Jewish identity. Seventy-five percent of Israelis are Jewish, 73% of Jews were born in Israel. Most of us are Sabras.

So who then is the quintessential Israeli? Is it Yair Lapid or Naftali Bennett, Moshe Dayan or Ilana Dayan, the kibbutznik or the settler, the soldier or the student, the Tel Aviv bohemian artist, the Jerusalemite religious student or the Sderot pioneer, the hi-tech champion or the Beitar Jerusalem champion, the new immigrant from Russia or Ethiopia or the Sabra, the young singers of The Voice TV show or the Holocaust survivor? Probably a mixture of all of the above.

After three or four generations born in an independent Israel, it may be time to reflect on the question of who is an Israeli and in which Israel will he or she grow up, as today the issue of “Who is an Israeli” is more relevant to most Israelis than “Who is a Jew?” The attempt to deal with the issue is more impressionistic than empiric and it is subjective by definition.

This is an attempt to create a mosaic of our national character, made up of a great diversity of pieces:

• The founding father, the generation that created the state, the Palmah generation, the old-timers who are patriotic and idealistic. Tough people with vision and determination.

• The Holocaust survivor, who knew a world without Israel, who personalizes tragedy and national trauma, with a strong impact on our national ethos and character, with ongoing suspicion of a hostile world.

• The Efraim-Kishon style Sabra, with his national hat (kova tembel), khaki shorts and sandals. Somewhat abrasive, self-reliant and arrogant. A “new Jew” who knows how to grow vegetables and fight wars.

• The young soldier, boys and girls with courage, high motivation and at least initially a high moral code, today less so due to the occupation. A team player and a good friend. Patriotic to the bone, bordering on nationalism. The girls more free and independent due to the service.

• The kibbutznik and the moshavnik, agrarian Israel, today less socialist and idealistic, bound to the soil, down to earth, secluded from the wider world.

• The settler, mostly religious Ashkenazi, highly motivated by the “greater Israel” ideology with xenophobic and sometimes racist tendencies linking God, politics and country.

• The man or woman from Sderot, like in most of the periphery, mostly of Sephardi origin with traditional and conservative values, a great believer in the community, frustrated by being sidelined by the elites.

• The hi-tech champion, the ultimate dream of the young, creative, intelligent. Linked to the world and somewhat elitist.

• The Tel Aviv Israeli, living in an around-the-clock vibrant reality of this Mediterranean metropolis.

I actually write this column out of a well-known Tel Aviv café on Dizengoff Street, Café Michal, and I see around me Tel Avivians from all parts of the city. Lapid back, expressive, noisy, good-looking, following the fashion and music of the Western world with original Israeli twists.

The Tel Avivian with a strong sense of local patriotism, who looks up to the international business world on one hand, but is also attracted by Israeli literature, music, art on the other hand.

A liberal Israeli when it comes to gender equality, freedom of speech, rights for minorities; listening to Shlomo Artzi on the beach, reading Amos Oz’s latest novel and aspiring to be hired by Microsoft. An Israeli on an island and on a bridge to the world.

• The Jerusalemite Israeli, the men of the mountain who are known to be “warriors,” living behind historic walls that seclude them from the modern world. The Jerusalemite tends to speak to God and, too often, in his name. He is tense, anxious and suspicious because of the friction between religious and secular, Arabs and Jews. I was born there and love it, yet moved to the Tel Aviv seashore where there are more open horizons and fewer politicians.

• The Israeli child, to whom the future of our country belongs. Last week I visited the Gymnasia Herzliya where I met the school’s director, Zeev Degani, to discuss with him a ground-breaking project on nutrition for African children in which he involves Israeli children, including my 14-yearold granddaughter, Anouck.

She, her siblings (Lenny, Miki and Allon), and their peers represent the hope of Israel and its future. Creative, intelligent children, linked to a changing, modern world on social networks.

The diversity of what constitutes the Israeli is fomented by Jewish history – Israel’s nation-building, the army experience, the development of our agriculture and industry, the big capital, the cities and the periphery, the wars and the occupation and our relationship with a changing world. These have all influenced the character of the Israeli, with many contrasting attributes and characteristics within a fascinating persona:

• To be Israeli means to be abrasive and sensitive at the same time. He/she has no problem making an unpleasant remark to your face, even insulting you without hesitation, but at the same time can be very attentive to someone in pain or loss.

• Israeli means generally quite intelligent, loving to engage in complex analysis without necessarily expressing great wisdom or judgment when it comes to making a choice.

• Israeli means great creativity and imagination, yet often limited by excessive organizational needs stemming from the military experience; the first out of the courage to engage, the latter out of the fear of not being in control.

• Israeli means courage, often more physical than civil, as was proven in our many wars.

• Israeli means direct – we come quickly to the point, whether in the social discourse when boy meets girl, or in the political one when Right meets Left. This directness is often wrongly confused with candor.

• Israeli means a great need, sometimes compulsive, to communicate while at the same time being very self-centered – it takes less than a minute when meeting a foreigner before he or she is barraged with a thorough questioning of “how do you like Israel?”

• Israeli means to admire the world – we stopped wandering as refugees and began to conquer it as tourists. We are very curious and knowledgeable about the world, yet generally think that we know better. The same world that we admire and want to belong to is perceived by us as hostile, if not anti-Semitic. Israeli means to be cosmopolitan and paranoid at the same time.

• Israeli means to be utterly patriotic, ready to defend the blue and white. This often comes with a mistaken sense of superiority, mainly in relation to our next-door neighbor, which can also lead, and often does, to a lack of morality.

• Israeli means to be a good friend – a friend in need is a friend indeed. If one is in need, it is good to have an Israeli friend.

• Israeli means to have an ironic sense of humor, loving satire and imitations, but lacking self-criticism.

• Israeli means constant optimism and constant complaint.

These characteristics make for an interesting and attractive collage comprising the Israeli, with strengths and weaknesses, complexities and contrasts. They are inherited by our Sabra children and grandchildren who should be able to continue to be optimistic, creative, outspoken, courageous, direct (and even abrasive), communicative, believers in themselves, creators of bridges to the world, good friends and helpers of the needy, humorous and, above all, humane. And at the same time they should live in circumstances that will permit them to get rid of national and personal paranoia, lack of caring and morality toward the other, excessive suspicion as well as arrogance.

The circumstances in which the young grow up will influence their character as Israelis. If they grow up in an Israel at conflict and at war, with a weakened democracy rife with inequality and racism, it will only enhance excessive paranoia, fear and arrogance as well as shut down the necessary bridges to the world.

On the other hand, in an Israel of peace, democracy and respect for human rights, their many positive qualities will only be enhanced and their tremendous creativity will lead them and the country to new shores.

This year, modern Israel will be 65 years old. It is indeed time to reflect about our national identity, fomented by the Israeli experience – curing ourselves of the traumas of the Holocaust experience, fostering a productive and dramatic nation-building process and regaining our freedom. A freedom that allows for great creativity, free thought, free expression and creation as well as tolerance for the different. Yet the chains of internal and mainly external conflict are still binding us to the world of yesterday and to the characteristics of the Galut (Diaspora). It’s time to get rid of the demons and chains of the past and the present.

This Israel is in need of a leadership better than the one that was elected.

Israelis know they deserve better and in the long run will probably not tolerate abuse. Israelis are better and more interesting than their political leaders, as they share a very appealing personality with creative strengths and also burdening flaws – an attractive complexity to which we are fortunate to belong.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
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