The new Jew and the true Jew

Prof. Gad Yair has a new Hebrew book on The Code of Israeliness, in which he delineated what he calls 'the Ten Commandments of Israeliness.'

Torah 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Torah 521
(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
After returning to Israel from a trip to Australia and the United States, I was struck by the contrast between driving there and driving here. Hardly a kilometer goes by on any Israeli road without seeing gross violations of the law, dangerously reckless driving, excessive speeding or a general lack of respect for the other driver, to say nothing of the constant use of the horn for no good reason.
At the same time, I came across an interview with Prof. Gad Yair concerning his new Hebrew book The Code of Israeliness, in which he delineated what he calls “the Ten Commandments of Israeliness.”
They are: existential fear of annihilation; chutzpah and contrariness; the sense of entitlement and ownership; the feeling of needing to contribute to and abide by a conditional contract with the state; humiliation; being opinionated; a lack of seriousness; a loathing for hierarchy; collectivism; and the buddy-buddy mentality. Some of those would surely explain why Israelis drive as they do.
There is no way I can deal with all of these attributes within the confines of this column. My immediate reaction is that there is a great deal of truth in what he says. There are many wonderful and caring Israelis, and I would not want to tar all of them with the same brush, but it is hard to deny that we experience, for example, “chutzpah and contrariness” all too often. What really bothers me about it is that these traits are so different from what we generally think of as Jewish traits. There is little, if anything, positive about them.
Have we really sunk so low? Has humiliation come to replace humility? Is contrariness to come instead of forgiveness, a lack of seriousness in place of devotion to study, entitlement in place of generosity? Whatever happened to the definitions of Jewishness found in Pirkei Avot: “Whoever possesses these three qualities is one of the disciples of Abraham: a generous spirit, a humble soul, a modest appetite” (5:21), or Hillel’s teaching, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing please, loving all human beings and bringing them close to the Torah” (1:12)?
IT IS well known that Zionism had as its goal the creation of a “new Jew,” one who would be assertive and not passive, one who would be prepared to fight back and not suffer pogroms quietly. The Zionist poet Saul Tchernichowsky was extreme about it. He wrote a poem suggesting that we bow to the statue of Apollo as an affirmation of life, since “the nation is old – its God has grown old with it... God, the God of those who conquered Canaan in a storm – until they bound Him in the straps of tefillin.”
We have indeed become assertive. We know how to fight. In that, we have succeeded. But placing ourselves in a position of power rather than powerlessness does not require us to forget the qualities and characteristics that the Jewish tradition has tried to inculcate in us for thousands of years.
That does not mean that all Jews were always paragons of virtue.
The Torah itself castigates Israel as “a stiff-necked people.” But it also exhorts us to act lovingly toward our fellow and to love the stranger (Leviticus 19:18, 34). It tells us to be merciful and just, to be considerate of others and even to help our enemies (Exodus 23:4-5).
Some of the traits that Yair ascribes to us may be the result of years of strife and struggle that have characterized the history of first the Yishuv and then the State of Israel. Some of it may come as a result of simply misunderstanding what Judaism really stands for. Even many observant Jews act this way, concentrating too much on minutiae and not enough on the moral principles that are the basis of the teachings of our tradition. In any case, if creating the “new Jew” has resulted in creating these so-called traits of Israeliness, then perhaps we need to find a way to soften the new Jew and imbue our society with the traits of the true Jew, the disciple of Abraham and of Aaron.
In that way, not only will driving on the roads become safer, but daily life will become more pleasant as well.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).