The following episode goes back to the late 1970s, when as a fairly new immigrant I got a writing job at an Israeli trade magazine in Tel Aviv. I was soon shocked to my British core at hearing a veteran administration employee, a woman named Ruhama, screaming back at her superior, Zalman, who had shouted at her for some infringement of duty. Violent verbal altercation between the two was, I came to learn, a fairly regular occurrence in that office, one which both parties seemed to accommodate quite comfortably within an otherwise serene relationship.
But having grown up in a society that functioned according to largely unspoken but well-defined rules of public behavior, I could only marvel. Where I came from, I knew that such noisy eruptions at the office would have resulted in one or both parties being taken aside and told, quietly but firmly: “That kind of thing isn’t done here.”
Wrapped in the habitual British understatement, the message would nevertheless be clear: Social consensus holds such public behavior to be beyond the pale. Therefore desist, or suffer the consequences.
The “Zalman-Ruhama Show” may not have been typical Israeli office behavior, then or now, but I knew of Western olim who had felt unable to adapt to their new workplaces and left the country.
WHAT SPARKED the above memory were the words “it isn’t done” in a December 28 Jerusalem Post column by political scientist Susan Hattis Rolef entitled “The Knesset’s public image.” Our legislature is currently the subject of a TV campaign aimed at improving its poor public profile.
Israel’s parliament is not the only one in the democratic world whose standing is “in the gutter,” Rolef points out, noting that public trust in democratic parliaments and their members everywhere has been eroding for several decades, for reasons that include increasingly cynical populations in post-industrial societies and “the media’s inclination to focus on scandals and dirty politics.”
On average, she says, our MKs are neither better nor worse than their counterparts abroad – in fact, often better – and she believes that in many respects the Knesset performs many of its functions well.
But this feels like faint praise since what she then does is hold the Knesset up as a mirror reflecting us Israeli citizens, tacitly endorsing in the process Joseph de Maistre’s famous dictum that “Every [democratic] nation gets the government it deserves.”
And in Israeli society, Rolef writes, “the norm of ‘It isn’t done’ seems totally absent.”
Consequently in our parliament you have “a prime minister who doesn’t hide his contempt for the Knesset and does everything in his power to bypass it; an opposition that rarely makes an effort to bridle its attacks on the government; and a group of vulgar, contemptible MKs [she cites the scandalous Oren Hazan] who should never have been elected in the first place.”
The battles being fought within the Knesset’s walls, Rolef says, are authentic reflections of those being fought in a society that is divided over the major issues such as the future of the territories, the place of Halacha in the law of the land, separation of religion and state and the role of the Supreme Court. “If the Knesset is a mess,” she says, “so is Israeli society.” Perhaps, she concludes, “the problem isn’t the Knesset, but us.”
I THINK what brings olim from Western societies up short – and still startles me more than 40 years after making aliya – is the extent to which the concept that something simply “isn’t done” is still largely absent as any kind of operative behavioral norm.
The urge to “beat the system” leads people to treat rules and regulations not as mandatory, but as mere recommendations. And if you can circumvent the rules, all the better.
This mindset showed itself quite literally when I traveled to Taiwan with a group of Israeli tour operators. At one of the airports where we changed planes, a lightweight movable barrier had been set up to help channel the flow of passengers in a particular direction. The leader of our Israeli group, spotting or guessing our eventual destination, simply moved the barrier aside and motioned us through the “short cut.”
My driving instructor recalled a teenage girl learner remarking, airily: “My father told me that while I am learning to drive, I should keep to the right side of the road.
But he said that once I pass the test, I can do what I like.”
“The basic tenets of mutual respect in our society still largely don’t exist,” commented a friend, recalling how in the run-up to national elections, she had seen even educated people she knew walking up to public billboards and ripping off the manifestos of political parties they disagreed with.
I WONDER whether, perhaps subconsciously, the idea of being at home here in Israel, where we are “with family,” as opposed to being the Diaspora’s “guests” who must mind how they behave, is what makes many Israelis feel they can do whatever they want – emptying of all meaning the notion that something “isn’t done.”
But just as in any family, for this culturally and educationally diverse one to “work,” its members need to take cognizance of each other’s rights – each other’s humanity – and of their own obligations within the family structure. The more parents and teachers consciously take on the mission and challenge of leading the next generation, by example, into a society which enjoys a consensus around what is and isn’t “done,” the healthier society will be.
AS ROLEF notes, the battles being fought within the Knesset’s walls reflect those being fought in the society it reflects. And those verbal battles, waged over crucial issues that encompass the nature and very future of this country, are understandably fierce. But where is the point at which we say: “Making this or that accusation crosses a line”? A paper put out several years ago by the Conflict Research Consortium of the University of Colorado titled “The Meaning of Civility,” dealing with “the current tenor of political debate” and “the destructive ways in which the issues are being addressed,” could well have been talking about Israel today.
“Clearly,” the paper’s authors say, “civility has to mean something more than mere politeness. [Our] movement will have accomplished little if all it does is get people to say, ‘Excuse me please,’ while they (figuratively) stab you in the back....
“People need to be able to raise tough questions... when they feel their vital interests are being threatened. A civil society cannot avoid tough but important issues, simply because they are unpleasant to address... [But] clearly, there are numerous instances in which the parties to publicpolicy conflicts act in ways which are destructive and inappropriate....”
AS IF to illustrate the above, two Hebrew University lecturers, Amiram Goldblum and Ofer Cassif, have just made headlines by attacking Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Facebook. One posted a montage of her face above a skeleton, bloodied hands, two guns and a row of dead bodies; the other called her “neo-Nazi scum” and “filth,” and accused her of being “an indirect partner to genocide in Africa and crimes against humanity” – a reference to the financial support she received for her political campaign.
The trigger was the lecturers’ outrage over a Shaked sponsored bill which this week passed a key legislative hurdle and would impose transparency on NGOs funded by foreign governments.
The lecturers’ political affiliations are well known; in defense of the language in which he couched his accusations, Cassif cited “freedom of speech.” Shaked is expected to file an official complaint.
A lot could be said about these two lecturers, who are busy educating a new generation of Israeli citizens. They are entitled to voice their opinions. But when they call an elected Israeli leader a Nazi implicated in genocide, and describe her as filth – a description of Jews favored by the real Nazis – one hopes they will be told, in no uncertain terms: “In Israel’s public discourse, this simply isn’t done.”