Vive la difference!

In Israel, a stranger may either find himself treated with deep suspicion, or be subjected to a series of questions aimed at establishing his origins, especially how Jewish they are.

Prof. Alice Shalvi (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prof. Alice Shalvi
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I know that I am taking a risk by putting what follows in writing. So I feel I should say from the start that I am very happy to be an Israeli citizen, a privilege not universally bestowed, that I have a lovely Sabra family and some admirable Sabra friends. But like Alice Shalvi in Never A Native, I know I am different and can never be a real Israeli. Furthermore, I do not want to be.
When it was known back in England that I was marrying an Israeli and planning aliyah, I was warned by a prominent Israeli journalist in London, ‘You do realize that the Israelis are not nice people.’ I was shocked. What he had said seemed to me a kind of treachery. His words did not reflect my extensive acquaintance with Israelis of all kinds during a decade of working between London and Tel Aviv. I had spent many months enjoying Israeli co-operation and hospitality. But I had never lived here. Twenty six years later, I understand what that journalist meant, though I still do not agree with him.
In 2004, a British social anthropologist called Kate Fox published a best- selling study of her native people under the title, Watching the English: Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. [Oddly enough, this work was recommended to me by an Israeli relative who had read it in Russian!] The author coined the phrase ‘dis-ease’ to encapsulate what she had found to be at the root of what it means to be English: a kind of awkward embarrassment in social situations.
The English, she says, find it difficult to handle introductions, farewells, casual relationships with strangers, compliments, fervor, earnestness and hysteria. The unfailing coping mechanism, she found, is to resort to sardonic humor, wit and self-deprecation. It accounts, she maintains, for the English tendency to apologize even when there is nothing to apologize for. Far from being the hardest word, “sorry” is the most used word in English bilateral relations.
Other studies about the meaning of Englishness testify to all of this, to which I can add my own experience, but even from the brief reference above, it is clear that Israeliness is something else.
In Israel, a stranger may either find himself treated with deep suspicion, or be subjected to a series of questions aimed at establishing his origins, especially how Jewish they are. Apologies are less likely to be offered than accusations, and fail-safe humor more likely to be a tease than a shaft of wit.
The so-called hidden rules of English behavior, in my own observation, do include a prohibition on drawing attention to oneself, on boasting [much better manners to downplay one’s achievements – an Olympic athlete asked what she did for a living replied, “I do a bit of sport”], and on complaining in a public setting. So a dissatisfied English customer in a restaurant may moan endlessly to his companions but will end up apologizing to the waiter for troubling him to replace a dirty fork.
Privacy is of primary importance to the English. Home, the Englishman’s castle, is the outward symbol of this priority. An English family looking for a good spot for a picnic will choose one as far away from everyone else as possible.
In all these respects, Israeli rules are very different. The worst insult one could hurl at an Israeli is to call him a freier. If he feels he has been cheated, badly served, over-charged or has missed out on a bargain, it is obligatory to make a fuss, the louder and more public the better. Boasting about accomplishments, especially if they involve children or grandchildren, is mandatory.
If there are any rules of Israeli behavior, they were obviously made to be broken. The Israeli disregard for regulations is notorious, particularly in evidence on the roads, and most damagingly when it comes to laws that are in place to protect the public. And that Israeli family looking for a picnic spot will go to where everybody else is because it must be the best.
The English insistence on good manners can seem hypocritical to the outsider, and there is some justification for this. At its best, it demonstrates respect for the other, but it can also be a means of covering the aforesaid dis-ease. It is certainly true that the bad manners of some Israelis is the first cause of alienation to the newcomer. Even today, having lived in Jerusalem since 1993, I sometimes have to remind myself that so and so did not mean to be rude, and that Israeli children shout because nobody has told them not to.
The Tetley Tea Company in the UK carried out a survey of 2000 English people to try to find out what they considered would identify them as English. Among the most frequent responses were: never stop talking about the weather [a cover, I suggest, to disguise their dis-ease], always apologizing, hate queue jumpers but won’t challenge them, uptight, suffers in silence, best humor in the world. A quick Google search for studies on what characterizes an Israeli produced the following image: tough, arrogant, rude, chutzpahdik, cannot bear to be a sucker [freier], impatient, warm, tribalistic, reliable in a crisis.
When it comes to tracing the origins of these national characteristics, and whether Israelis of English origin are more English than Israeli, we encounter the nature versus nurture argument.
Fox speculates in her book that the English are what they are because they live in a small over-crowded island, very much like the Japanese who share some of the same characteristics. Attempts to explain Israeliness frequently refer to Jewish history – Jewish vulnerability in foreign lands, the need to be on guard, to be ready to move on, to fight authority.
I conclude that Israel is a harsh society compared with England, for some of the reasons described above. But I would never say that Israelis are not nice people. Obviously, some people are nicer than others, wherever they come from. In any case,
Israeliness is still a work in progress, hundreds of years behind England. Who knows what a social anthropologist will make of what it means to be Israeli in two millennia?
Jane Biran is an author, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation