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