Israelis, personal and political

Politically, the people here are nuts but personally, over the past 25 years, they’ve changed – for the better.

By LARRY DERFNER
July 21, 2010 22:26
Larry Derfner

Larry Derfner. (photo credit: Larry Derfner)

It’s very ironic: In the last couple of years I’ve grown completely alienated from what the State of Israel has come to stand for, but for the first time since moving here 25 years ago, I find myself beginning to like Israelis as people.

In this country, at least, the personal is not the political.

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Here, it seems to me, they’re opposites.

Politically, Israelis now operate strictly on fear and aggression; look at them cross-eyed and they think Hitler’s back and they’re ready to drop the big one. Politically, they’re nuts. A danger to others and themselves.

But though living in this country in the 21st century feels to me like living in a Fox News studio, or in Middle America during the McCarthy era, I often find myself in the course of a day thinking: Geez, these people are all right. You can talk to them. They’ve changed – for the better.

I know: They haven’t changed, dummy, it’s you who’ve changed after living here 25 years.

And I agree: That’s a part of it. For one thing, it seems I’ve finally learned enough Hebrew to halfway hold up my end when people are being funny – which is most of the time. You miss a lot here when you can’t keep up with the humor; it takes years just to be able to understand it. When you enter the circle of spontaneous Israeli humor, it’s a whole new country.

It seems I’ve lost some of my urban American uptightness with neighbors, clerks and anybody else I haven’t known since childhood. Now I can talk with strangers, which is another part of what’s best about living here, about Israeli society, that I couldn’t appreciate until not long ago. It takes us Yanks a while to loosen up.

BUT BASICALLY, it’s not me who’s changed. Every few years I see friends I’ve known since I was eight and they say I seem the same to them, just as I say they seem the same to me. But I also have family members who’ve been coming to this country since the ’60s and they are shocked at the change in the people. They, too, find that Israelis, on the whole, have become civilized human beings.

About 10 years ago my sister Suzie put it perfectly: “Israelis under the age of 40 are sane,” she said. Which means that today, Israelis under 50 are sane. That’s a lot of sanity.

Sane, meaning they don’t scream all the time like people in this country used to. They don’t bark at you and make you feel stupid when you ask a simple question or venture an innocuous opinion. They don’t act like they know everything and you know nothing. They don’t forever seem to be saying “bah!” They’re nice. Yes, Israelis have become nice! You go into a restaurant – they’re nice. You go into an office – they’re nice. A friend of mine, an American who came here about the same time I did, was saying how in public she sometimes feels like she’s the aggressive one, while the Israelis are the ones behaving themselves.

I get that same feeling sometimes – and I didn’t used to. Israelis have changed – for the better.

They work hard – and they sure as hell didn’t when I got here in 1985. (It was only after seeing what socialism had done to the Israeli work ethic that I became a capitalist.) And something I really admire them for becoming, which they weren’t before: charitable. Israelis used to think of themselves strictly as schnorrers, charity was what rich Diaspora Jews was supposed to give them. But now, giving money to needy people has become part of daily life – over the phone, to kids going door-to-door, on TV, at the supermarket. You can say it’s because of prosperity, which wasn’t here a generation ago, and you can say the state, meanwhile, has become a regular Scrooge, but still in all, Israelis have become very generous people, and that is a major, remarkable change for the better.

Politically, in the last decade, this country has become a wasteland – but I look around at the big new national projects it’s built, and I’m just stunned. I haven’t been to that many international airports, but I cannot imagine one as beautiful, as much a work of art, as Ben-Gurion.

MOST OF all, I look at the city I live in, Modi’in. Like the airport, it’s big and modern but also warm and human. People get to know each other. It’s a good society that’s been built here. It’s no place for single people, but if you’ve got kids, it’s a great place to raise them.

I read in the paper about the Israeli teenagers who trashed the hotels in Greece, and I’m completely disgusted – but then I look at my teenage son, who is as Israeli as they come, and I look at his friends, and I see the other side of the young people here. They’re all right, they’re good kids.

And it just kills me what this country is doing to them. I don’t think IDF soldiers are brutal compared to other soldiers, just the opposite: I think if you put just about any other army in the situation the IDF is in, those soldiers would be more brutal.

Israelis are not violent, brutal people, but we’ve chosen to be in a situation with the Palestinians – chosen it – that invites such behavior, that compels such a mentality.

And at that point, the political comes to outweigh the personal – for the soldiers and for all of us who send them off.

Israelis are good people who, as a nation, are doing something terrible. As individuals, we are friendly, funny, creative and humane, as a nation facing the Palestinian nation, we are a tyrant.

It’s because we’re good individuals, and getting better, that makes what we’re doing as a nation to ourselves, and to others, all the more piercing to see.


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