Those Walled In

What makes an Israeli? A peculiar mix of joie de vivre, arrogance, aggressiveness, fear, claustrophobia, plus a whole lot more.

What makes an Israeli? A peculiar mix of joie de vivre, arrogance, aggressiveness, fear, claustrophobia, plus a whole lot more.Living in Israel is one continual encounter with the Israeli character, stereotypically labeled as the “sabra,” the cactus that is hard and prickly on the outside, but mushy and sweet on the inside. But the Israeli character is far more complex than the stereotype.

Of course, on the one hand, there is no such thing as the Israeli national character – after all, a nation is composed of individuals, and each individual is unique. And yet – somehow – there is a sort of character, a personality that a country has. Or at least there is the character that people project on a nation.

Amos Elon, Israeli journalist and intellectual, wrote a review of “Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse,” by Sylvain Cypel that appeared in the New York Review of Books. In the article Elon wrote “The original French title of the book, Les Emmurés-those walled in-better expresses the peculiar mixture of joie de vivre, arrogance, provincialism, aggressiveness, fear of another Holocaust, and claustrophobia that has struck foreign observers and also some Israelis for years.”

I thank my American friend Nick for bringing Elon’s quote to my attention. It makes an excellent launch pad for an exploration of the Israeli character.

I like Elon’s description. It’s pretty accurate. Israelis definitely have joie de vivre – polls show that despite everything, Israelis overall are happier with their lot than most other nationalities, including Americans.

Arrogance, well yes, most Israelis are convinced they are the best and they aren’t shy about letting you know it either. Not that they brag, rather they tend to put others down, leaving themselves in the up position. I have a friend who is an airline pilot for Southwest who desperately wants to make aliyah – yet he can’t get a job with El Al because even though he has thousands of hours of experience flying airliners for major American carriers, El Al hires IDF helicopter pilots with 1,000 hours before they hire him. Why? Because of a combination of that arrogance, the Israeli Air Force way is clearly the best for everything, and the “clubbishness” that goes with this superiority complex.

For the most part, I don’t think I’d characterize Israelis as provincial, however. They have a very international outlook. The economy is driven by exports; Israel is a very small country, so almost everyone takes vacations elsewhere – Turkey and Czechoslovakia are popular as being not too far away and relatively inexpensive. Even people of modest means travel internationally.

As to aggressive, well, this is a trait for which Israelis are famous. One of the challenges of getting by in Israel is that if you are not aggressive you are perceived as a “freier”, which is a Yiddish term for sucker.

The next trait on Elon’s list, fear of another Holocaust, is also real. But remember, just because you are paranoid, does not mean that they are NOT out to get you. Ahmadinejad may be a nut case, but he is a nut case who is the head of state of a country.

By all accounts enriching uranium is the “hard” part of making nuclear weapons. Even if their nuke program is on the shelf (Israeli intelligence is not convinced it is) it’s very easy to restart. Oh, and that does acknowledge that they HAD a nuclear weapons program, doesn’t it? Let’s see, what shelf did I leave those plans on? And Ahmadinejad has publicly proclaimed that Israel should be wiped off the map. Wouldn’t you be a little paranoid?

Hamas also calls for the destruction of Israel. Would they use a nuke if they were able to get their hands on one? I certainly wouldn’t make any bets. And of course many Israelis visit the cemetery on Memorial Day to mourn the loss of loved ones in wars in 1947, 1967, and 1973 when the Arabs did try to destroy us, big time, not to mention two Lebanon wars, two intifadas, etc., etc. We have good reason to fear, although, thank God, overall I think we’re in better shape on the security front than we were in 1973.

Claustrophobia, yes, that comes with living in a very small country. Israel is more or less the size of New Jersey. If you lived in New Jersey and on one side the borders with New York and Connecticut were sealed, and the border with Pennsylvania was one you could technically cross, but it didn’t feel particularly safe to do so because people there didn’t like you, you too would probably feel a little claustrophobic.

But Elon’s description of the Israeli character is incomplete. There are a few things you have to add:

Israelis really care about each other. There is a “we’re all in this mess together” attitude; there is a feeling of being part of a large extended family that is stronger than among Jews in the Diaspora. If you want to put it down, you might call it clannishness. But anyone who wants to can join the clan. OK, it’s a little more involved than say putting on a kilt, but you can still join. It’s nice to have that feeling of belonging to a group with shared values, even if we can’t agree on exactly what all the values are or how to interpret them!

In Israel we enjoy an attitude of living in a frontier. Maybe some of the arrogance comes from living in a place that the rest of the world treats as important. There is more terrorism in Sri Lanka, more people are dying in Kenya, human rights abuses are far worse in any country within 300 miles, not to mention places like China, and yet we’re on the front page of the Western papers every day while those others places often get scant notice. Makes us feel important. But more than that, it makes us feel like we are a part of something important.

In short, the Israeli character is complex and interesting. One of the biggest challenges facing a new immigrant to Israel is fitting in as a part of that culture. The American character I bring with me to Israel is very different indeed than the Israel character of my new home. Can I really be an Israeli when my character is still more defined by my years as an American?

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  • Patch ❄️

    Hi! I’m just very curious about this blog post because, you mentioned that they are complex and interesting. When you mean complex and interesting, does that mean that there are a lot of things we still don’t know about them?

    Patricia Dominique Lee
    8 – Briant

  • Yushra Balahim

    As a student your blog is very helpful for us to know more
    about Israel. I really like your blog. Because, it is not just a blog for
    fashion and everything. It is about the Israel. And it helps us a lot to know
    more about the history, culture, and the people of Israel.

  • AcFuertes

    As a student, this article made me realize that not all Israelis are the same each of them has their own unique traits and what makes an Israeli is a particular mix of joie de vivre (which means happiness), arrogance,aggressiveness,fear,claustrophobia and more. Knowing what makes an Israeli is a privilege because I get to know more about them instead of criticizing them, this article taught me that Israelis definitely have this ‘joie de vivre” despite what will happen to them they will still be happy. This article gave me more knowledge of the Israelis traits and attitudes , and how they act upon other foreign countries since they think they’re the best. Israelis care about each other as stated above which they have this motto of “we’re all in this mess together”, this is the first nation that I think have this attitude which is kind of surprising because I never thought of Israel having this attitude.
    Anyways, because of this article I will now think that Israelis are truly amazing and interesting, but they should not be afraid to fit in because their character is one of a kind. Even some people will want this kind of character.

  • Szchanelle Ilaban

    For me fitting in does not mean you have to change who you are to belong. You just need to be yourself and respect their culture so they will return the favor.

  • Best (sunny)

    i agree to your blog sir. i too find israeli interrsting and complex. Anyways nice blog :)

  • Diane Dela Peña

    They are happy of what they have in their country. Even they have their own characteristic, they still help each other.

  • Anna Marie Francesca Enriquez

    The blog is nice, it gives the people a lot of information about the characters of an Israeli. It also states that Israelis care about each other. They look at each and everyone as an extended family, anyone can join the clan. I also learned that freier which is a Yiddish term for sucker. As what the blog says the Israeli character is complex and interesting.

  • Jeason Hamamoto

    I hope that God will help Israeli in their needs and the things they need to improve. Israel is important to me , beacause most of the content in the BIBLE is comes from this place. I pray for Israel’s protection from war.

  • Eilon Matthew Barredo

    israelites are aggresive because if your not aggresive in irael then you will be called a sucker

  • Shamy

    you cannot judge people in terms of what you usually heard about them but you should consider whats behind or the reason why they are acting in such actions.And for this blog, I found it fascinating and helpful to know some interesting information about some characteristics which Israeli possess in their personality and some other aspects.

  • Jose Anthony S. Chan

    “Frier” is a yiddish word for sucker, It is not fine to say “Frier” to someone who is not aggressive, calling someone “Frier” just lowers their hopes of getting by Israel and just because one of Israels famous traits is being aggresive, they should not make everyone in Israel aggressive. Everyone one of us has a special traits, they should know that..

  • Jerome U. Macrohon

    Isarel itself, whenever it’s able, has always been the first to rush out into the world and help others – for example, in Japan after the tsunami or in the Phillipines after the recent typhoon – regardless of any economic or political benefit in return (although building international goodwill can’t hurt).”Freier” is Yiddish for sucker and no Israel…wants to be seen as on.And it is very bad if you called someone “Freier” who is not aggressive..So do not called the Isarel people “Freier”

  • Reem Arabani

    I agree on to what you have said. Israeli really is a peculiar mix of joie de vivre, arrogance, aggressiveness, fear, claustrophobia, and a lot more. Israeli is an interesting nationality and they are brave, of course.

    But to answer your question, “Can I really be an Israeli when my character is still more defined by my years as an American?”

    As a person who only serves one nationality, I don’t quite get what you mean by being an Israeli even though you’re more of an american. Though, even if your character is american-like, that does not mean that you can’t be an Israeli. You can still be accepted as an Israeli despite you being an american. It all depends on you as to whether you want to be one or not. We’re free to choose whatever we want, right? After all, we live in a free world. The choices we make defines us as well, not just by your character. You want to be an Israeli, right? If that is what you want, go for it. It’s not like you are bound by the choices of choosing what you want. I can see that you are really interested on that nationality. People’s opinion won’t matter because it is your decision not theirs. So, if you want follow that nationality, go for it.

    Just like what this quote states..
    “In the end that was the choice you made, and it doesn’t matter how hard it was to make it. It matters that you did.” ― Cassandra Clare

  • alfredtorrino

    This Article will help us know more about the people of Israel Thanks !

  • Janelle Galano Dizon

    I think that the israelis are nice people. They have their own characteristic. They are just people like us. I think that they are not “freier” or simply aggressive. Not every thing that we hear about them are true. If ever a problem occur they would stand up as one and sove it together. They are interesting people we just need to know them better.

  • Angelica Yanga

    I agree with what you said about Israel. I think one of the reason why Israelis feel superior is because as a people they have always been working hard. This is because they have been looked down by other people so they need to strive hard.

  • Ezra Machutes

    I can see how Israelis care about each other, as mentioned in this article. I really love that they have the “we’re all in this mess together” attitude, because this is the line that caught most of my attention. Caring for each other is a big help to creating a strong and united country. Though I think that calling people who are not aggressive “freier”which is the Yiddish term for sucker is a bit harsh, because people have different views and attitude towards life which is why there are people who are calm and aren’t aggressive. Though, my overall opinion about this article, that it is well detailed and is an amazing article that opens our minds to learn more about Israel.

  • Sofia N.

    As a 14 year old student, i really think this article makes us more realize and have more knowledge on the present attitude of the Israelis, and this article lets us know how they act upon other foreign people/country since they think highly of themselves or to be known arrogant and all. Although yes,the Israelis are truly complex and interesting which makes them unique and outstanding in terms of their technology and others. and overall i really think this blog is informative in letting people know or in giving information about the country of Israel and their citizens.

  • Raheem Aluk

    In my view, i see Israel as a very confident country despite all the circumstances the country is going through, which is one of the good traits of a good country

  • Ellen Meg Gerodias

    This article gave me the opportunity to learn more about the Israelis. Their character is truly interesting because they are unique in their very own ways. It is very nice to know that Israelis really care about each other. May God keep the Israelis safe at all times.

  • RafiqZayd

    I agree with this blog about Israel. For me, being arrogant does not mean that you are superior. Being arrogant helps the Israelis know who they are and what they think who they really are. I like this blog a lot because not just it helped me to know more about israel but it also tells me that being arrogant is just a hobby, if we get used to it, then it will be hard to change it again.

  • Julienne Cañizares

    * I really do find your blog interesting.

  • Khalid Tucal

    This is nice! it gives us many information about the Israelis, but for me not all the Israelis have the same attitudes it only depends on the people who influences them. Every person has his/her own attitudes and perspectives on the realities of life. :)

    Khalid K. Tucal