Where Did You Go, Ari Ben Canaan?
04/01/08
Staff Writer
A public opinion pollster is interviewing people on the street. He stops four people and asks, “Excuse me, what is your opinion of the meat shortage?” 
A Russian says, “What is opinion?”
A Pole says, “What is meat?”
An American says, “What is shortage?”
An Israeli says, “What is ‘excuse me’?”


My first time in Israel  was an education. But not in the way I had anticipated. I studied the language, I studied the history, I studied the geography, I studied the culture before taking part in a mission for Jewish journalists in November 1975. On our first stop, at a roadside diner on the way to Beersheba, I approached two Israeli soldiers. In my newly minted Hebrew, I said, “Shalom, ani m’America.”  I’m from America. Welcome brother, I imagined they would say, embracing me. Or, come to my home for Shabbat. Or, I have a beautiful sister — I want you to meet her. In my Zionist dreams. “So what?” the soldiers shrugged, and walked away. Israel would be a challenge, I learned that day. Since then, I have returned to Israel nearly a score of times. I have made friends there, I have seen history being made there, I have walked the streets there. I love being there.

But it can be a tough country, for visitors and born-abroad residents. First-timers, especially Jewish visitors from the United States, may find Israel unsettling and Israelis abrupt. For those who have never visited the Jewish homeland, the trip is too expensive or the country too scary. So we stay here and gripe about “rude” Israelis. If Ari Ben Canaan, the virtuous Haganah hero of Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” were alive today, we’d probably complain that he, too, is rude. Among the country’s “Top 10 Fables,” Sam Orbaum, the Jerusalem Post’s late humor columnist wrote, was: “We’re rude.” His response: “The hell we are.” Some of us don’t “get” the Israel of the 21st century. It doesn’t fit our decades-old, diaspora ideal of noble settlers draining the swamps, of kibbutzniks dancing the hora after a day’s work, of pious chasidim and brave soldiers. Their Jews aren’t like ours.

Today’s settlers and kibbutzniks and chasidim and soldiers, inhabitants of a different world than most American Jews inhabit, see things differently and act differently than we do. And they, frankly, don’t care too much about what we think about them. It goes both ways. At 60, is Israel’s anniversary a celebration for all of us? Surveys contradict each other about whether Israel remains as important in the hearts and minds of American Jews as it once did. But polls show most of us don’t go to Israel (only about 20 percent of U.S. Jewry has made the trip), more young people say they don’t feel connected to Israel (with the notable exception of tens of thousands of birthright israel participants) and many Jewish college students express doubts about Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. 

Part of the problem is linguistic. We speak different languages, literally and figuratively. The Hebrew schools that don’t teach us Hebrew also don’t teach us much about the reality of the land where it is spoken. Part of it is generational. In the decades since the memory of the Holocaust brought us together, Israel has changed and American Jewry has changed. Unquestioning support for an endangered country has waned since 1948, certainly since 1967. Generation-X American Jews know only a thriving Israel, a powerful Israel, one that has been transformed from David into Goliath in the eyes of much of the media. Most Americans are in the dark about any foreign country. “In general,” says California journalist Donna Rosenthal, who worked in Israel for five years, “all Americans tend to be globally illiterate. People [in this country] ... including American Jews ... have very little clue about who Israelis are.” 

On the ideological front, most American Jews resent Orthodox control of Israel’s cradle-to-grave religious regulations, which doesn’t recognize non-Orthodox rabbis, conversions or other beliefs and practices. Our lives are so different, Americans and Israelis. We study Zionism, they live it. Our 18-year-olds go to college while theirs patrol the West Bank. We read about terrorism, they ride the buses. We worry about making a living, they worry about living. The pressure takes a toll on Israelis that we don’t understand. In Israel, common courtesy (derech eretz in Hebrew) is not common enough. In Israel, protektsia rules. Connections get your car repaired, your relative hired, your loan approved.

In Israel, bureaucracy is a Kafka novel come alive. Frequent public relations campaigns remind Israelis to be polite, if not for their own sake, than for the sake of the tourist trade. “It’s the Middle East. It’s a different part of the world,” says Joey Low, founder of the Israel at Heart initiative that sponsors a wide variety of educational and cultural programs, including visits of young Israelis to the Diaspora, to improve Israel’s image. Quick cultural lesson: The prevailing Israeli directness traces its roots to the state’s founders 100 years ago. “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,” South African native Ralph Dobrin wrote in a recent Jerusalem Post article headlined “How about common courtesy?”

We call this “me-first” attitude chutzpah. They call it dugri. “Dugri [is] an Arabic/Turkish word that means talking straight and honestly,” Rosenthal writes in her book about Israel (“The Israelis,” Free Press, 2003), which is being reissued this year. “When Israelis talk dugri, there’s little posturing or gamesmanship. Talking dugri is the opposite of subtle; it means speaking in a thorny Sabra style. Talking dugri means you know where you stand.” Another Israeli word you should know: freier. A freier, from Yiddish and German, means a sucker, and there is nothing worse in Israeli society than being one.

“’Don’t be a freier’ is practically the 11th commandment of the Israeli,” Haaretz’s Benny Ziffer wrote in 2006. It extends from drivers cutting off someone trying to enter their lane to making national policy.

 “We are not freiers. We don’t give without receiving,” former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told students in an Israeli school ten years ago. Dor Chadash, the New York-based group that brings together Israelis and American Jews, recently sponsored a panel discussion on “Israeli and American Jews in the Work Place – Are We Really That Different?” and the Jewish Community Relations Council has established a New York/Jerusalem Dialogue Project to develop “more effective communication” between young professionals. The JCRC pilot program includes a heavy dose of videoconferencing, where participants learn that young American Jews and their Israeli counterparts are colored by “different cultures,” that Americans are more formal, Israelis more straight forward, says Elana Bekerman, JCRC director of special programs. Previously, “we were always trying to change the other society,” says Rabbi Bob Kaplan, director of JCRC’s Commission on Intergroup Relations & Community Concerns. The program has developed mutual understanding, if not quite approval, of each other’s styles, he says. “They understand that Americans just operate in a certain way.” 

Donna Rosenthal tells of an American customer who asks why everyone in an Israeli business  “is fighting and yelling.” “They’re just talking,” the Israeli manager explains. Representatives of Israel are reluctant to discuss their country’s sometimes-poor image. I called two local offices here — of the Israel Aliyah Center, and of the Israel Ministry of Tourism — to talk about this subject. No one called me back. At 60, education about Israel is still necessary. And helpful. Continued exposure to the ways of Israel usually corrects a poor first impression – the chasm between American Jewry and Israelis is still manageable. “It’s not too late,” Donna Rosenthal says. “We have wonderful programs like birthright,” which bring young Jews to Israel on educational, inspirational trips.

Having been to Israel frequently, though, I can balance every story of rudeness with one of unexpected kindness: the grocer in my friends’ northern Jerusalem neighborhood who extends me credit when I show up every few years; the cab driver who, saying he could not take me to my friends’ home late one Friday afternoon, told me to hop in, dropped me off at the Central Bus Station, turned homeward without charging me a shekel, and wished me “Shabbat shalom;” another cabbie, who picked me up during the Gulf War, and informed that I needed to get a gas mask at a government distribution center, took me to the right building and guided me through the red tape. Israeli soldiers have their soft side too. I served with Volunteers for Israel on an army base near Tel Aviv at the start of the Gulf War. My first morning there, after the initial Scud attack and time in a sealed room earlier that morning, I was sitting in an unheated shed, a khaki jacket over my shoulders, across from a young, female soldier, sorting pills for medics in the field. “You came here when war was about to break out?” she asked. “Yes,” I said.

“You’re crazy,” she said. “Thank you for coming.” In 1985 I crossed the Jordan River at the Allenby Bridge after a week in Jordan, after a week appraising the Arab country that would become the second one to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The soldier at the border crossing asked his pro forma questions, searching everyone in line.

He looked at my passport, he looked at my face, he looked at my kipa. He stamped my passport, waved me through and smiled. “Welcome home,” he said.

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