How about common courtesy?

Israel's pioneering legacy of the gruff sabra is coming home to roost.

working mom 88 (photo credit: )
working mom 88
(photo credit: )
What happened to Israeli self-confidence and our legendary ability to get things done? How could we have routed the mighty Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in a mere six days back in 1967, and then a generation later our vaunted army was so impotent that it couldn't even overcome a band of Lebanese guerrillas after 34 days of combat? A partial answer can be offered through a short episode in the early 1960s, when my wife and I met Ya'akov, a young moshav farmer. We were living in Durban, South Africa at the time. Ya'akov was touring the country, and had been looking for someone who knew Hebrew to put him up for a few days. He stayed with us for three days. We took him sightseeing, brought friends to meet him, made sure he was well fed and comfortable. He was about our age, early twenties, but we couldn't really connect with him. He was taciturn, aloof and seldom if ever indulged in polite remarks or gestures. Even when I took him back to the railway station to see him off to his next destination he got on the train with an impassive look on his face and departed without a "Good bye" or "Thanks for putting me up." He simply disappeared from our lives, and my wife and I promptly forgot about him ... until four years later, after coming on aliya and settling down in Jerusalem. One afternoon there was a knock on our door. A middle-aged man stood there holding a sack. "Are you Dobrin from South Africa?" he asked. "Yes," I replied warily. He lifted the sack and thrust it at me. "Here, this is for you!" He turned quickly to go away. "Wait please," I called out. "Who's it from?" "Ya'akov," the man said. "Ya'akov?" I wondered. "Yes," said the man. "Yaakov - he's a neighbor of mine on the moshav. He heard I was coming to Jerusalem and said that he knew that you were living here now. He stayed with you when he visited South Africa." It was a big sack full of freshly picked oranges. No note. Just a belated gesture of thanks, we supposed. The style - rough, unrefined, direct, with no frills, airs or ceremony - was so typical of the sabra types of that time. Nice that he remembered us, we thought. But he could simply have said "Thanks" four years earlier and maybe made some small-talk. But clearly, he was a product of the pioneering ethos that had begun a generation or two earlier. THOSE EARLY pioneers at the turn of the century had shed the rigid community-mindedness and piety of the ghetto and the shtetl for an earthy, robust practicality, that was probably more appropriate for survival in a barren, hostile land. Politeness was deemed irrelevant in such circumstances. The sabra was brought up to be gruff, curt and focused only on absolute essentials. That was Ya'akov all right. But it was a grave mistake on the part of those wonderful people, to belittle the importance of politeness. True, one didn't need the airs, invariably phony, of Elizabethan gentry. But basic good manners are imperative for any society. Israel's independence took place under turbulent circumstances. Before and after the declaration of statehood, waves of immigrants poured into the land, coming from scores of different countries, bringing their own particular customs, values, and norms of behavior. Few leaders really gave much thought to the evolving national character. Indeed the curtness and abrasiveness of the sabra was often regarded as something to be emulated. But things never stay exactly the same, especially in a nascent society like Israel. Values and norms tend to undergo gradual change. The lack of basic politeness led to rampant inconsiderateness. Today, many Israeli parents do not teach their children any manners whatsoever because they themselves never learned proper conduct from their parents. Many children receive no guidelines regarding consideration for others. A LACK OF consideration for others readily leads to an overly self-centered perspective on life which can be expressed as: "I don't care about anyone but myself. No matter what it takes, I'm going to get what I want and I don't care who I hurt in the process." In other words, common decency and integrity become irrelevant. Nevertheless, many people in this country, including the descendants of those old-time pioneers, are decent folks who live by a universal code of politeness, consideration and respect for others. This might be partially due to the frequent trips abroad by Israelis, who can see for themselves the preferability of common courtesy. Also, gratifyingly, despite a reported general increase in crime and violence, there is more niceness in the Israeli public domain than a generation or two ago, when to be served politely in a shop or office was a rare occurrence, and to get on a bus you often needed to wrestle your way to the door. But the general norms of politeness and consideration are still far from being satisfactory. Over the years this has led to greater self-centeredness and slacker moral standards. That's why, today there is far less general willingness to take part in Israel's struggle against her adversaries; that's why there is so much underhanded, unethical and criminal behavior at every level of our society. The lack of courtesy during the early years of modern Zionism has resulted in the present boorish egocentrism, which in turn has led to cynical, self-serving, defective governance. For all these reasons this nation has lost the confidence we once had in ourselves and in our leadership. That's also a significant factor in our unimpressive showing against the Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War. And it all began with the belittlement of politeness at the beginning of modern Israel's renaissance. Most of the settlements that sprang up at that time discarded Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, had the Return to the Land been accompanied by more significant traditionalism, there would still have been a low standard of common courtesy, but it would probably have forestalled the egocentrism and lowered ethical standards plaguing Israel today. MEANWHILE, Israel is in the midst of a crucial stage in its history, facing stern military challenges and continued deterioration in its society. Seldom has any nation been so desperately in need of good, honest, wise leadership, or a society willing to give of itself and to believe in itself and in its leaders. Desperately needed is more integrity at all levels. Integrity is easier fostered in a society imbued with consideration for others. And consideration for others begins with a basic level of politeness. Without this common human trait - no matter how many yeshivot are opened, or how many fighter aircraft we acquire - the Return to Zion, created with so much hope as a haven for the Jewish people, will prove to have been nothing more than a brief historical footnote. The way forward begins with the individual and it simply means being nice to each other. That is the first step toward building a society imbued with integrity. Mutual cooperation, national responsibility and a belief in itself will follow. The writer, born in South Africa, has lived in Israel since 1962.