larry derfner 88.
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One of the great characters on Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country), the country's legendary TV news satire, is "Shimi Hershkovitz," the ultimate Israeli boor. Shimi, played by Assi Cohen, makes life miserable for everyone he meets - the stewardess on the plane, the owner of the bed-and-breakfast, the traffic cop. He's noisy and recklessly inconsiderate, he giggles, cackles and chews gum while making people suffer, he's inexpressive because he has nothing to express - yet he loves himself and his life.
Finally, his victim gets fed up and reads him the riot act, at which point Shimi puts on a puppy-dog expression and plaintive voice and says: "I'm asking you heart-to-heart, Abbaleh..." Shimi tells a tale of woe, his victim softens, Shimi gets away with it and goes off giggling, cackling and chewing gum, ready for his next sucker.
Everybody who's lived in Israel for any length of time, or anybody who's had extensive dealings with Israelis overseas, has met Shimi Hershkovitz plenty of times. He's an authentic national type.
For various reasons, this country breeds lots of men like him - the type is male, not female - and they start growing into their Shimi-hood as adolescents.
I WAS reminded of this, as if I needed reminding, by a weekend feature in Yediot Aharonot that told of the Israeli high schoolers who go by the tens of thousands to Ayia Napa, the Cyprus beach resort, for cheap summer holidays. Typically the boys run wild on the flight over, drunkenly break anything and everything in their hotel rooms, foul the pool from their balconies, go to the bars already drunk so they don't have to buy drinks, and if they do buy drinks, they try to skip out on the tab. Any Cypriot who says a word to them gets cursed and threatened.
And when they're finally asked to leave the hotel or bar, or when the hotel or bar won't let them in to begin with, how do the boys explain it?
"Israelis always say: 'Anti-Semitism! They hate us!'" the Israeli consul said in the article. "I tell them: 'They don't hate us. Behave nicely, and there won't be anything for them to hate.' Unfortunately, we [Israelis] have gotten a very bad name here."
The idiots described in the article are 17 and 18 - in their last year before the army. One of them was asked by the reporter why he and his friends act like they do on vacation. His reply: "We come here after 12 years of school and matriculation exams, and before the army. Maybe we're going to die on some army mission or in a terror attack, so what do we have to lose? Basically we're trying to live the moment to the fullest."
WHEN I first moved to Israel, I probably would have fallen for that line and made excuses for the boys' behavior. After not too long a while in this country, though, I learned that it is just the standard Israeli excuse for the worst Israeli behavior, and I realized how obscene this con job is: to use the image of fallen soldiers and terror victims to shield Israelis who act like animals.
Fallen soldiers, terror victims, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust - any image of Jewish suffering can be used on gullible foreigners to gain forgiveness for Israeli teenagers on vacation, for Israeli drivers, for Israelis abusing service employees, for Israelis scowling and yelling, for Israelis complaining about the price.
It works until the gullible foreigner runs into one Israeli boor too many, and then the game is up. You don't have to be an anti-Semite to be wary of Israelis; the wariest of all, I think, are Diaspora Jews who are "pro-Israel" but who have also met a lot of Israelis visiting and living in their countries.
On our Pessah trip to South Africa, we stayed in a Johannesburg bed-and-breakfast owned by a Jew whose son was studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva, and he told us how he recently refused to rent to an Israeli dance troupe simply because of his experience with Israeli guests. "What don't they destroy, what don't they steal?" he asked.
I THINK he was exaggerating. Not all Israelis are like that. In fact, I think most Israelis are just fine, and a lot of them are fantastic - as civilized as anyone else, and friendlier, warmer, funnier and livelier, in a good way, than most.
However, there is a disproportionately large minority of Israeli boors, and when they are teenagers on the loose, they can very well turn into the majority. It used to be that this behavior was most blatantly on display in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the other cheap Third World spots where Israelis go to "clear their heads" after the army.
Now they're starting before the army. Is there any question how a lot of the boys at Aiya Napa will behave later, in uniform, when they're together with their new buddies on checkpoint duty in the West Bank? They're going to make a lot of innocent Palestinians' lives miserable - and not because they're afraid of being killed, or because they've been marked by anti-Semitism, but because they're infused with the spirit of Shimi Hershkovitz.
WHAT ARE the real reasons why there are so many Israeli louts? Why is loud, demonstrative, radically inconsiderate behavior so common here? Why do foreigners, including foreign Jews, seem to dislike Israelis as people, whatever they think of Israel politically, as they dislike no other nationality - except the French?
I've got a few, not terribly original, ideas why: the harshness of the Hebrew language, climate and landscape; the hardship and poverty of daily life that existed here until the current generation; the callousness that came from pioneering in a hard, hostile country; the resentment, alongside a limitless sense of entitlement, that comes from nurturing a national self-image as the world's eternal victim; and the near-fanatical spoiling of Israeli children.
There are other possible reasons for Israeli obnoxiousness. But then you have to keep in mind the opposite extreme of the national character - the remarkable readiness to help strangers in need, the warmth, the humor, the human touch. What explains the goodness of the Israeli heart?
I can't explain it. This duality in the Israeli character remains a mystery to me. But what I do know is that if you take a random Israeli, he's not going to be half-boor and half-mensch; he's going to be either one or the other, or at least one of the two qualities is going to be dominant in him, and the other recessive.
Of course, there are lots of Israelis who are really neither. But I think that compared to other nationalities, Israelis tend to have personalities that are very highly-charged, either positively or negatively. Unfortunately, the negative charge, the boorishness, is more noticeable and more likely to make the first impression on people than the positive charge, the menschlichkeit, which, being quieter and unassuming, tends to get overshadowed.
However they coexist, though, there is the kind of person I think of as the Bad Israeli and the kind I think of as the Good Israeli, and only one of them belongs to the population I consider to be "my people." The other one, regardless of his nationality or religion, is strictly an alien.