Jewish assertiveness



Remember the wedding scene in Goodbye Columbus. It shows the ugliest side of Jewish nouveau riche, and got for Philip Roth the severe criticism of Jewish leaders for his exaggerations, or for revealing one of the embarrassing aspects of Jewish culture.

Think of Ehud Olmert and a few other politicians, as well as Sara Netanyahu. Ehud''s weaknesses included a collection of high priced fountain pens, said to be received as gifts from admirers, as well as all else revealed in the recent verdict, and the long list of not quite guilty verdicts received--or that should have been received as guilty verdicts according to various analysts--over the course of two or three decades. 
Sara has been featured in a series of charges by former employees almost as long as Ehud''s criminal trials. Typically they say she screams and otherwise abuses the help, makes excessive demands and insulting comments, and in some cases doesn''t pay what she should.
She has also been described as sticking her oar into the workings of the Prime Minister''s Office, pressuring Bibi on who to hire and who to fire.
Neither the Ehud nor the Sara stories, nor Goodbye Columbus, add to our appeal to others or to ourselves.
But think also of aggressive journalists and prosecutors who have coped with, and in many cases overcome the draconian features of Israeli criminal law which favor the defense. 
Currently the prosecutors are dealing with several officers who had been close to the top of the IDF. Allegations concern their maneuvers to influence the appointment of the next Commanding General. Also in the sights of the prosecutors are their boss, the previous Commanding General, and that general''s wife. 
One of the candidates to succeed that Commanding General tripped up when a newspaper published a picture of his palatial private home, and reported that he built it partly on land taken improperly from his neighbors.
The problematic features of Israeli criminal law bear some resemblance to more than two millennia of Rabbinical legal rulings and literature that began all that time ago to ponder the problems in deciding one''s guilt. The rabbis pretty much squelched the death penalties and corporal punishments that appear in Torah, and contributed to the endless trials and convoluted verdicts in modern Israel that proclaim the accused is not guilty by virtue of sufficient doubts as to the facts or the intentions of the accused..
Maybe those rabbis were thinking of one of their own. Israel''s recent Chief (Ashkenazi) Rabbi has been charged with accepting bribes and money laundering, and has been accused of sexual harassment by a gay man.
Just as there is money to be made in government, linked to appointments and project approvals, there is money to be made in a Rabbinate that controls marriage, divorce, conversion, and certificates of kashrut.
Israel''s State Comptroller is part of the country''s assertive concern for good government. The office may not be well known to international Jewish worthies who pride themselves in going to banquets with the worthies of Israel. When compared to its equivalents in other countries, however, Israel''s official critic is especially aggressive. The law empowering the office is unique in providing the Comptroller not only the authority to audit on the conventional criteria of legality, economy, and efficiency, but also on the criteria of moral integrity. The law reflects that passage in the Book of Amos, which indicates that God is more concerned with justice than song or ritual.
Much of the nasty stuff uncovered initially by Israeli media goes into the hopper of the State Comptroller, where professionals dig up additional details, that are published in extensive reports, and may trigger criminal prosecutions.
Think, too, of all those Jewish Nobels, several of which have been won by Israelis, or Jews who did their principal work in Israel and went to the other Promised Land for more money or the opportunities that money can buy.
Jewish assertiveness is somewhere in the common stuff that produces the embarrassments of nouveau riche, as well as self-serving  politicians and creativity in various fields of science, technology, and culture.
Israeli Jews--like their diaspora cousins-- also have their ordinary people, who just want to get by in simple work or the professions, as well as those who--along with their personal modesty--aspire to great achievement or wealth.
One can hope that it is correct to say that the vast majority of Israelis who reach high position, and their spouses, behave as they should.
Israeli education may have something to do with the assertiveness of the national culture, yet it is not a simple picture.
On the one hand are the low scores on international tests, and considerable inequality between high and low performance that is associated with family traits of income and ethnicity. 
The questionable quality of Israeli education may have something to do with the assertiveness of the politicians who become Minister of Education. Each of the recent ministers has been impelled--perhaps by Jewish creativity or brazenness--to make changes in the school calendar, the nature of curricula and exams, while the rest of us wonder if the ping pong style of variation every two or three years can possibly do more good than harm.
Yet there are those who see Israeli schools as contributing to Jewish genius. Several delegations of foreign officials have come to Israel in order to study the schools, as somehow linked to Israeli creativity.
The young son of a Korean pastor (one of my PhDs,who remained in Israel as the representative of his church) was featured in a three part Korean television series which followed him and his schoolmates, and made a point of the noise, confusion, and freedom of questioning authority, and being on a first name basis with teachers, that marks Israeli education in contrast to the severe discipline of Korean schools.
Israeli universities are part of this. None have the resources that would enable them to achieve the distinction of the leading American or European institutions, but Israel is the only country where all of its universities appear in the ranking of the top 500 universities of the world. The leading Israeli institutions (Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Technion, and the Weizmann Institute) typically appear in rankings among the world''s the top 100 or so institutions.
I recall a comic--most likely Jewish--who said that Jews are just like everyone else, but more so.
The more so isn''t all good. But some of it is. And like it or not, that''s us.