Just before sitting down to write this blog (that''s been itching inside me for days), I read fellow blogger Rebecca Bermeister''s latest entry in her "Aliya Journal," also featured on The Jerusalem Post. She writes that her brother gave her some sage advice before making aliya. He told her:
"You can''t change them, so don''t try."
My first immediate reaction when I read her words was to chuckle and think to myself, "Man, Israelis have a bad rap." My second reaction was, "He''s so right." My third reaction was, "Wait a minute. Who says?"
This week, I''ve had it up to here with "cultural differences."
I can certainly understand the concept–and the need to respect said differences—when it comes to shaking hands with an Orthodox Jew at a job interview, bringing a shrimp dish for a Shabbat potluck, or refusing dessert in a Bedouin tent.
What I don''t appreciate, and don''t want to accept, is when it is used as the be all end all excuse for anything unsavory in this country: from pushing in front of me in line to cutting me off in traffic to showing up late for scheduled meetings.
Of course, ask any Israeli if he considers the above behavior unsavory and he wouldn''t be the one to justify or apologize. ("Who are you to question what time I showed up to our appointment?," he would likely say instead).
In my experience, it''s more often the expat Americans, the ones who have lived in this country long enough to feel defeated, that will explain away another''s behavior with the excuse "cultural differences."
Which I consider, at this point, a very lame excuse.
How many things could we explain away with those two words: cultural differences?
We could explain away cruel treatment of women or gays.
After all, it''s cultural in certain tribes of Africa to mutilate women''s genitalia. Does that mean it''s an appropriate or humane practice?
We could explain away anti-semitism.
After all, it''s cultural in certain rural regions of the U.S. to hear spoken at the dinner table words like, "Watch out, son. Jews control the world."
Or "I had to Jew him down."
Oh, come on, you''re saying right now, you''re talking extremes and extremists.
Who draws the lines on what''s cultural and what isn''t? On what is extreme or not? Cruelty can be cultural. Ignorance can be cultural. What makes something cultural is how many people in one society accept it. Who is willing to tolerate the behavior, and when is the tipping point?
What''s the Big Deal?
So you tell me, "Israelis aren''t on time. It''s cultural." You say, "Who are we hurting by showing up late?"
And I say: Our behavior, unique to our culture or not, has lasting impacts we don''t even realize.
The car you just cut off, for example? The driver is now so aggravated he cuts off someone else. A pregnant woman. Who crashes her car into the median.
The person you just cut in front of in line? He happens to be a violent, angry father who was just one more aggravation away from beating the crap out of his kid in the car -- which he does when he gets back inside.
What? You didn''t know? It''s not your fault?
I beg to differ. Every one of our choices has consequences. When we simply explain our choices away with that classic Israeli shrug of the shoulders that indicates "cultural differences," we''re ignoring those consequences.
This weekend, for example, we agreed to host a visiting group of rabbinical students at our home. We changed our Shabbat plans to accomodate this visit. We cleaned the house. We baked a cake. We set out the nice plates and napkins. We shushed our children when they whined that they would prefer to play with friends than be good hosts. They agreed to be sweet and engaging and together we got the house ready for the visitors. My husband, along with my youngest daughter, went to the agreed meeting place at the agreed time to pick up the guests.
But the guests never arrived.
Word got back to us a little while after that the group went on an impromptu hike earlier and it was possible they would show up late or not at all. Due to Shabbat, we couldn''t call them to confirm. I found out only later their guide wasn''t wearing a watch and therefore wasn''t watching the time. A veteran immigrant born in America, I suppose one might say he''s adapted to the culture.
I wouldn''t. I would say he made a choice.
That day, instead of learning how to be gracious hosts, my children learned a lesson I wish they hadn''t.
They learned a lesson about commitment...about keeping it, and not.
I don''t feel comfortable telling my kids it''s a cultural difference. I don''t believe it to be true. I just don''t. Call me hard-headed, stubborn, stupid, but I just won''t settle for that excuse.
I know that there will always be people who don''t show up on time. There will always be people who push, and drivers that would rather cut you off than let you go ahead of them. But those are people making choices. It''s not culture that''s making them do it.
What I hope is that, as a culture, we reconsider what we tolerate. That we consider the difference between something we can''t change and something we don''t want to.
Brilliant in it''s simplicity is the Serenity Prayer, used by A.A. and other recovery groups. I wonder if it wouldn''t be better advice to future Israeli citizens than "You can''t change them, so don''t try."
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.