Culture wars: Israeli-American-style, Part I

The barrier to getting to know Israelis goes back to the prime directive of early Zionism: “Let’s get these people some pride.”

Hummus (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Do Israelis like Americans? Not an easy question to answer. In truth, it never has been. Perhaps the best way to get at it is to start with another question: Do Israelis like Israelis? I am not talking here about all the internal divisions – political, religious, ethnic, racial, cultural, sexual, gender, generational – that torment us, and that also affect the comity of the rest of the planet.
Nor is this to deny the absolutely ferocious tribal loyalty that is activated whenever those who hate us get a bit too proactive in their animosity. Rather, this concerns how Israelis treat each other, and how this style of treatment extends to Israel’s relationship with American Jews, and with America.
Amos Oz’s description, “a hot-blooded, warm-hearted Mediterranean people,” seems apt.
The vast majority of Israelis I’ve known this past half-century, here and in America, have been decent, generous, humane men and women, once you get to know them.
But therein lies the problem. The barrier to getting to know Israelis – and Israel in the 21st-century world – lies not in any courteous reserve or sense of personal propriety. It’s something else entirely, going back to the prime directive of early Zionism: “Let’s get these people some pride.”
The founders were adamant: the Zionist Jew takes fierce pride in his or her ancestry and tradition. But it cannot stop there. The Zionist Jew openly, even defiantly, backs up that pride with a respect-demanding (not “respectable”) way of life: physically and mentally strong, competent, no-nonsense, don’t-mess-with-me – the opposite of everything the shtetl-dweller and the cosmopolitan “self-hating Jew” were supposed to be.
As the Zionist enterprise began to flourish here, the demand for pride took on another aspect. “What you’re accomplishing is incredible by any standard.
Take absolute pride in everything you build and in your defense – physical and verbal – of your accomplishments.
Never yield to hatred, to scorn, or to any diminution of these against-all-odds achievements.”
Even when the criticism’s legitimate? I HAD a conversation with an Israeli on what he termed “cultural differences.” I’m sure we’ve all had this conversation, more than once. His gravamen: “Yes, Israelis are loud, confrontational. They talk too much and interrupt too much, and the person who shouts loudest wins the argument. But that’s the culture.”
Adhering to my credo, “Where angels fear to tread, there I go stomping,” I replied, “Yes. But why is it the culture?” The Israeli glared as though I’d asked a question that was taboo. I pressed on. “I am no anthropologist, but in every culture I’ve experienced or studied, this behavior signifies either a form of posturing in quest of dominance, or an expression of (learned?) helplessness and unavailing rage.”
The discussion terminated. The man walked away.
And now, the more I think about it and live it, the more I realize that the cultural requirement to dominate permeates and distorts Israeli society, politics and relations with America, if not the world.
I’ve often wondered about the gratuitous rudeness and petty cheating we all encounter. When shopping, especially in smaller stores, why would a shopkeeper deliberately insult and/or cheat me unless the desire to dominate the exchange takes priority over getting the sale and keeping the customer? Salespeople in large chains, ditto.
A friend recently had a chat-turned-nasty with a wealthy Israeli who sold some sort of product at inflated prices. When my friend, an American of considerable business acumen, suggested that he could make more money by lowering the price, the Israeli took it personally, as though to say: “They’ll pay what I tell them to pay.”
Israeli drivers and pedestrians... some other time on that one. And Israeli politics: How long have the winners been those who “get away with it”? Perhaps the quest for dominance is inherent in Zionism; it’s certainly a vital asset in this neighborhood.
But no matter what your political opinions and religious beliefs are, it is undeniable that you can’t rule over people who do not want to be ruled by you, decade after decade, without some changes in outlook and character.
Israel cannot survive without certain forms of dominance and the mind-set that makes dominance possible. But what happens when you exercise this on American Jews and on the vast wasteland that America has let itself become? So... do Israelis like Americans? Yes, I believe, on the whole, they do – more than not. Except when they’re doing the dominance thing.
Next: Do Americans like Israel?
The writer will continue the “Cancer Chronicles” as soon as something funny happens.