The new type of Jew in Israel

June 21, 2008 at 3:21 pm 2 comments

Honesty and brashness was a

bad combination


Ralph Dobrin is the author of “How to Avoid Armageddon”

To order the book click:  type: how to avoid Armageddon

“So, how do you like it here in Israel”? I was asked by a friendly, middle-aged man waiting at the bus terminal. It was fifty years ago and I had been in Israel for about six months. The general atmosphere in Israel in those days was stoic, dynamic and full of hope. “It’s so exciting,” I answered. “So much is happening all the time. And there are people here from all over the world. It’s so very interesting and exciting.”But then I added, “The trouble is that there’s too much pushing. People have no consideration for others. They aren’t polite.”

The man’s smile disappeared and he frowned. “Well of course you’d say that. You’re an Anglo-Saxon (the term people in Israel use for anyone whose mother-tongue is English) !”

“But the lack of manners spoils everything,” I continued.

The man shook his head. “No my friend, what you call a lack of manners is actually a sign that people here are straightforward and honest. All those nice English manners that you want – all that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m so sorry’ –  it’s all a lie. It’s just useless, corrupt falseness.”

“Maybe you’re right,” I had gulped adolescently, eager to be agreeable and see only good in the country.

“I know I’m right,” the man said emphatically.

Well, today I know he was wrong. Dead wrong! But I can understand why it was the way it was. Firstly, the early pioneers at the end of the 19th  century had shed the rigid community-mindedness and piety of the ghetto and the shtetl for an earthy, robust practicality, that was probably necessary for survival in a barren, hostile land. They were very conscious of the historical moment – they were creating a new world for themselves and their children. They had forged a change from the craven Jew in Europe, from their fathers, uncles and brothers who had submitted meekly to the humiliations meted out to Jews in general. They even thanked their oppressors obsequiously and apologized for unjustified accusations.

They had resolved that there would be no more of that galut mentality in their ancestral land! The sabra (the term given to the local-born Jew) was brought up to be gruff, curt and focused only on absolute essentials. Also politeness was deemed quite irrelevant in such circumstances and furthermore – it was not entirely honest. For those early pioneers blunt honesty was another important characteristic they were trying to cultivate in the tough, self-reliant, straightforwad New Jew in his ancestral homeland.

But I think that it was a grave mistake 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, especially one that was emerging like Israeli society of that time.

During the nineteen thirties, in the wake of the rise of Nazism, waves of new immigrants arrived from Germany and other parts of Europe. Many were people with a high level of culture, education and etiquette, but their influence was restricted largely to their own children and immediate circles. In any case many of their children got into the curt sabra spirit themselves.

Subsequently, the partition of Palestine and Israel’s independence took place under turbulent circumstances. In the midst of a desperate war of physical survival, waves of immigrants poured into the land, coming from scores of different countries, bringing their own particular customs, values, and norms of behavior. The population doubled within the first three years and continued expanding rapidly for the next few decades. Under such conditions it was natural that a strident, abrasive, impatient, anxiety-ridden national mentality would take form, in addition to the existing abrasive lack of politeness.

But things never stay the same, especially in a nascent society like Israel. That lack of basic politeness deteriorated into a lack of inconsiderateness – especially with the arrival of millions of newcomers.

For a few generations, many, if not most, Israeli parents have not taught their children any manners whatsover because they themselves never learned proper conduct from their parents. Similarly a large percentage of Israeli children have received 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 Israel, including the descendants of those old-time pioneers, are decent folks who do 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 within Israeli public than there was a generation or two ago – when to be served politely in a shop or office was a rare occurrence, or to get on a bus one often needed to physically push one’s way to the door, only to have it abruptly slammed in your face.

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 actively take part in Israel’s struggle against her adversaries. More than ever before, many young people do their utmost to avoid the compulsory military service; that’s why there is so much underhand, unethical behavior at every level of Israel’s society. It might still involve only a small percentage of the general populace. But it is painfully noticeable.

The lack of courtesy during the early years of modern Zionism, sometimes once regarded as something wholesome, has resulted in the present boorish ego-centricism, which in turn has led to cynical, self-serving, defective governance. For all these reasons this nation has lost the confidence it once had in its people and in its leadership. That’s also a significant factor in Israel’s unimpressive showing against the Hizbollah during the Second Lebanon War.


The beginning of modern Israel’s renaissance over a hundred years ago entailed the establishment of hundreds of farming settlements. Most of the new settlers of those days, discarded the religious upbringing of their former communities in Europe. In all likelihood, had the Return to the Land been accompanied by more significant religious activity, there would still have been a low standard of common courtesy, but it would probably have forestalled the ego-centricism and lowered ethical standards plaguing Israel today.

However, for over a generation, there has now been an enormous effort to promote Judaism in all sections of the public. Despite impressive results, the majority of Israelis still see themselves as non-religious. Judaism, which gave the world a very practical, commonly-used ethical code, is nowadays presented by too many rabbis as something dealing mainly with ritual, Sabbath observance, dietery laws and government funding, rather than a code that emphasizes common decency.

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 desparately in need of good, honest, wise political and spiritual leadership. Never has any society faced such a need to be willing to give of itself for a common cause, and to believe in itself and in its leaders.

The key to Israel’s future is integrity at all levels of its society. 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 Israel acquires – 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 irony.

However, judging by the many groups and organizations that have appeared in the last few years, more and more Israelis are realizing the importance of basic common decency and personal involvement. It’s not nearly enough. It must burgeon into an overwhelming national quest. And everyone living in Israel who realizes the situation must actively bring integrity and common courtesy into their lives. It will prove to be a significant factor in the future of Israel … and the Middle East.

For more on the subject click:

Ralph Dobrin is the author of “How to Avoid Armageddon”

To order the book click:    type: how to avoid Armageddon


Entry filed under: How to avoid Armageddon, In order to survive, Religion and belief. Tags: , , , , , , , .

The Israeli conversion crisis Giving in to terrorism

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. integrity2008  |  June 21, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    Decency is a rarity. This blog is a moral beacon.

    I left Israel, when I realized that I was reliving my earlier days from Budapest.

    The One Voice Movement announced a goal recently, the civil society.

    Israelis and Palestinians need a good guidance to find decency.

    In the shadow of the past Soviet Union, or the under the attacks of the Iranian Junta, it is difficult to hunt for decency.

    A Deakization of both nations is needed, a movement taken from the ideas of Ferenc Deak 1803-1876. A believable equivalent of Ghandi.

  • 2. pinchas baram  |  July 8, 2008 at 4:47 am

    You’re on target. Put another way, the abrasive sabra is a jerk and a big turnoff.

    Only a top-down large-scale push from the Dept. of Education and from municipal mayors– similar to Don’t pick the flowers or no smoking rules– will the seed of civility take root.

    Perhaps private companies with billboards showing celebrities boosting the need for kids to show consideration to others would help– corny as that method might apppear.

    Mini-courses sponsored by the Depts. of Education and Health in meditation and yoga and tai chi, with minimal talking and maximal silence, might also help set the right tone.

    The IDF is also an appropriate conduit, and may be the best one, since it operates by fiat and indocrination. Why not courses on basic interpersonal manners, with clear instructions (and punishments), similar to instructions on cleaning one’s gun.?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


%d bloggers like this: