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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