Cross-cultural awareness and int’l cooperation
Many Israelis do understand the importance of international cooperation and value the resulting professional dividend
NATO summit Photo: Reuters
In this week’s Torah portion, Balaam is summoned to curse the Hebrew nation but
unwittingly blesses them, saying among other things: “The people shall dwell
alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 39:9) Whether this
was indeed a blessing or a curse may be debated, but it certainly describes the
Israeli psyche until this day.
It is because of our unique and sensitive
regional and global position that we must embrace every opportunity for
international cooperation. The international arena is vital for all national
interests: doing business in the global market, augmenting defense capabilities,
sharing intelligence in the fight against fundamentalism, learning from the
mistakes and lessons of others, representing national interests in international
forums, and of course trying (usually in vain) to explain ourselves
We regularly use the term “global village,” engage in
international commerce, speak relatively good English and travel more than the
average citizen of the world, but we still have not made the necessary quantum
leap from regarding international ties as “external relations” to a mindset of
multilateral and multicultural cooperation.
In 2004, I led an Israeli
team in an international task force, established to secure the Olympic Games in
During one of our meetings, the American commander announced: “We
are here to promote US interests and to secure the US team.” The Scotland Yard
special agent was shocked, the German shook his head, and the Hellenic
representative got up to leave. I clung to his sleeve and persuaded him to
Since then, the Americans have begun to transform their rhetoric,
which now stresses “global interests” and “partners, friends and
Make no mistake, the US is no less concerned for its own
interests, but it now promotes them through partnership, cooperation and mutual
A main consideration today is sharing the burden due to
scarcity of resources, but it goes beyond that.
is crucial, which is why every effort is made to act in coalitions, under
internationally accepted mandates.
Our friends and partners have made the
transition, as their reality dictated: They comprise the European Union, serve
in military alliances, and even serve and die together in
They have learned to speak the same professional language,
adopted common terminology and adapted their local cultures to a unified,
international organizational culture. German and Australian officers are still
very different, but they learn to collaborate effectively without allowing
cultural differences to impede their progress.
In Israel, circumstances
have not led us to this transition. We are still a “people that dwell
This was demonstrated during the First Gulf War, when prime
minister Yitzhak Shamir (who died on Saturday) was faced with the dilemma of
whether to respond to Saddam Hussein’s barrage of Scud missiles, and by doing so
jeopardize the Arab-based coalition that could not tolerate Israeli involvement.
I learned of the decision when called to taxi back to my squadron, after being
ready for to take off for the outskirts of Bagdad. I was disappointed
personally, but understood the overarching strategic
Although we lack a broad presence in international
collaborative initiatives, we definitely maintain a robust cooperation network
with many partners and friends around the world.
Our strategic alliance
with the US stands out in magnitude and importance, as will soon be demonstrated
in the US-Israel Austere Challenge 12 military exercise. Israel is sought after
as leading in an array of capabilities and wealth of experience and
Cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are essential for
confronting foes (“know your enemy” – Sun Tzu) as well as for collaborating with
friends. Israel mastered the cultural knowledge needed to fight fundamentalism,
but unfortunately demonstrates, at times, cultural ignorance when it comes to
cooperation with partners and friends.
We are comfortable being
Our historic success in building a prosperous state and
maintaining the upper hand in every conflict has been, in a way, due to the fact
that we are different. Not only in our weapons, tactics and procedures, but also
in our values, code of conduct and organizational culture.
mentality of being different takes its toll. When it comes to allies and
partners, we must try to diminish the negative aspects of our
I recently attended an international conference in Tel
Aviv. The English-language session was surprisingly conducted in Hebrew, jokes
were made about a certain country with a distinguished delegation from that
country present, and simple spelling mistakes were plastered all over the
entrance hall. No malicious intentions, only ignorance and lack of
Unfortunately, many Israelis attach little importance to the
issue, and to expertise and experience in international relations. Most of our
defense attachés are officers who had long and demanding careers as commanders
in the field. After a relatively short training phase, they are expected to
represent Israeli defense interests as “military diplomats.” Unfortunately, many
attachés are on their last assignment before retirement, and their valuable
acquired expertise is soon lost.
It should be noted that most of them do
not fail and some even excel, due to the fact that they are bright, dedicated
and adaptable officers. There are also advantages to their non-professional
background. Experienced combat- proven leaders bring authenticity and candidness
who are much appreciated by professional partners.
This week, I spoke to
a friend from a European country, who has just been assigned to be the next
defense attaché in Israel. He is a graduate of the Israel National Defense
College and will assume his position in 2015 (!) after another whole year of
dedicated studies, including learning Hebrew.
Now that is taking it
Naturally, organizations differ widely in this respect and
within them there is great diversity in attitude and expertise. Amazingly, there
are still high-ranking officials who treat international relations as an
unwelcome burden, to be minimized and deflected to designated “external
Due to language disabilities and basic lack of
understanding of the strategic importance, they are dooming their organization
to one-dimensional thinking and exclusion from the benefits of international
What are we doing wrong? We tend to talk instead of
listen, teach instead of learn, and preach instead of recommend and
We relate to other nationals as “foreigners” instead of
We tend to think our way is the right way and
that the others range from different to strange.
On the positive side,
you will find that Israelis are open, friendly, honest, invest in the
interaction, and genuinely seek the realization of mutual goals.
also apparent that many Israelis do understand the importance of international
cooperation and value the resulting professional dividends.
Israelis have so much to offer. We must adapt in order to more cohesively
cooperate. This will further promote Israeli as well as regional and global
interests. It will enhance our learning ability and position us as worthy,
reliable and valuable partners.
The writer is a retired
lieutenant-colonel and Israel Air Force pilot. Born in the US, he has served in
various IDF General Staff positions related to international cooperation. An
industrial engineer who holds a master’s degree in business administration, he
is the founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd, an Israel-based company that
focuses on bridging cultural gaps in promotion of international cooperation.