Rattling the Cage: Israelis at work

For all the bravery and boldness and honorableness Israelis show in war, they tend to show the opposite in their jobs.

October 8, 2006 21:52
larry derfner 88

larry derfner 88. (photo credit: )


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The concussion turned out not to be serious, my son was 100% fine by the next morning. But the way the person "in charge" handled the incident shows, I think, how Israeli irresponsibility isn't limited to the politicians or the people at the top, which is the impression you get from all the grumbling going on since the summer war in Lebanon ended. For me, at least, the accident that happened to my seven-year-old son, Gilad, is a reminder that irresponsibility is a basic Israeli character trait - displayed mainly at work, and especially among lower-skilled workers. When I went to pick him up from afterschool basketball class, Gilad was waiting for me with his coach, and he said he wasn't feeling well. The coach, in his 20s, explained, "He fell and hit his head on the gym floor during practice." While talking to Gilad I asked the coach how he'd fallen. "There was water on the floor and he slipped." Anybody who's ever a watched a basketball game and seen a player take a fall, then seen the referee call time-out while the player's sweat is mopped up, knows a wet parquet floor is not supposed to be played on. I asked the coach, "Why was there water on the floor?" "The cleaning lady screwed up," he said, explaining that she'd washed the floor in such a way that it couldn't dry quickly. (I didn't understand, but it wasn't important.) Going on in his own defense, he said, "I had the choice of either calling off the practice or having the kids be careful," without realizing that the whole point was that he hadn't been careful. I asked him, "If you couldn't get the water off the floor, and it was obviously dangerous, why did you let them go on playing?" He rolled his eyes as if imagining the consequences of cancelling a class, and suggested I take it up with his boss, who contracts with the city to run the afterschool basketball program, and who gives him his orders. Then I asked him, "If you'd known then what you know now, would you still have let the kids play on the wet court?" "I wouldn't have done anything differently," he actually replied. The doctor said Gilad's neurological signs were fine, and that his headache, nausea and sleepiness were normal after taking such a knock on the head. We brought him home and after a night's sleep he was back to his jolly self. The head of community activities in Modi'in promised me that the afterschool program operators and the coaches who work for them would be told again, more intently this time, about their responsibilities to the children left in their care. I didn't ask him to kick the coach out of the program. I'm even going to send Gilad back to the same class (after I have a talk with the coach to see if he's any wiser now). Why am I so tolerant? Because I'm convinced that this coach is no different than any of the others. I'm convinced that in the same circumstances, the young coaches in the other afterschool classes would have made the same decision, and defended it even after an "accident" happened. HOW DID I reach this conclusion? Can you imagine an Israeli in his 20s, or any Israeli in a low-skilled job, taking the initiative to do what his job demands - in this case, making sure above all that the children he gets paid to look after aren't exposed to danger, - if it means his boss might get upset? Can you imagine any Israeli - young, old, high or low - accepting responsibility for the result of his negligence, instead of blaming it, for instance, on the cleaning woman? This goes back to something I've found ever since I came to this country: For all the bravery and boldness and honorableness Israelis show in war, they tend to show the opposite in their jobs. In battle they'll risk their lives as a matter of course, but as civilians they wouldn't think of risking their jobs for the sake of their responsibility as professionals. Think of the many great warriors who made second careers as calculating, survival-minded politicians; do you think the other great warriors who retired from the IDF to become executives for big Israeli companies are any braver, bolder or more honorable? In the Israeli workplace, anyone who risks his position in the name of professional duty is considered either a freier (sucker), or a naive idealist. The same goes for anyone who takes responsibility for his mistakes instead of crafting excuses and covering his ass. Not that the workplace in other countries is an arena of heroism, but I find that compared to Americans, for instance, Israelis have less respect for their work, and less respect for themselves as workers. Again, I see this much more among lower-skilled workers such as company clerks and building tradesmen than among doctors, nurses or teachers. Part of the reason, I imagine, is the legacy of Israeli socialism, which never exactly encouraged individual thinking or professionalism in working people. Yet Israeli owners, who hate socialism, are probably even worse than Israeli workers when it comes to having a sense of responsibility to their customers, or caring about the quality of whatever it is they offer in return for the money they make. And yes, Israeli owners definitely do tend to be less conscientious than owners in the rest of the economically-advanced world. Think of the Israelis who own banks, construction companies, employment agencies, supermarkets, taxi fleets, hauling-and-storage companies, plumbing/electrical/carpentry companies, and so on. Could they get away with running their businesses in North America or Western Europe like they do here? They wouldn't last a week. IT'S INTERESTING that in the classically "Jewish" professions - medicine, law and academe - Israelis are world-class. They keep the same standards of professionalism and integrity that you find in the "First World." The difference between Israeli work and Western work is in the non-academic jobs, and this is painfully clear to any Westerner here who's had experience with the run of Israeli commercial clerks, shopkeepers, salesmen or repairmen. Professionalism? Integrity? As the saying goes, this isn't America. Unfortunately, Jews have traditionally had a disdain for "low-class" jobs and the people who do them, and it seems this disdain has been internalized by the Israelis who work in these sectors of the economy. Also, because Israel is such a small country, there aren't a lot of jobs to be had, which is another reason why Israelis won't risk the ones they have for the sake of a professional duty - for instance, by cancelling an afterschool basketball class for the sake of safeguarding the kids. One of the things I dread most as a parent in this country is my sons getting their first jobs in fast-food joints or clothing stores or wherever, and learning the Israeli way of working. I tell them repeatedly that it's nothing they want to learn. But now that I write this, I'm thinking they would be exposed to a good work ethic if they could get some sort of job in a doctor's office, or a lawyer's, or a professor's. In America, my first jobs were as a liquor store clerk, a baggage handler, a hot dog counterman and a taxi driver. If I were still in America, I'd be happy for my boys to follow in my footsteps. So I find it pretty depressing that when it comes to attitudes toward work, I had to move to Israel to start thinking like an elitist Diaspora Jew.

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