When Israeli Traits Make Us Uncomfortable


A couple of months ago, Israeli social media was buzzing with expressions of shock and horror: a group of Israeli tourists on an Israir flight to Bulgaria were caught on tape behaving badly. Following an earlier incident, a steward on the flight refused to sell duty-free chocolate to a passenger who aggressively lashed out in response. Soon her sister joined in the verbal abuse, then the brother in-law, all in turn emphasizing their discontent with that Israeli gesture that must have already earned an entry in the dictionary of contemporary Hebrew: arm thrust forwards, palm turned upwards, hand wiggling from side to side. “You will sell me chocolate, you piece of garbage!” The injured party yelled. “You will sell her chocolate!” Her sister screamed in turn, “What do you think, she’s an Arab?”

The smartphone video of the incident made its way rapidly through Facebook pages and other public forums accompanied by strong expressions of criticism and disgust. Soon it was also on national television and in print media. Everyone had an opinion and for once it was all one and the same.

Unpleasant as the incident was, and as much as it showcased perhaps the ugliest feature of Israeli society – the readiness with which people will degrade other people and treat them as dirt – there was something curious about the volume of the public response to this incident. Why did this scene touch so many nerves? Why did so many Israelis, in and outside of Israel, feel the need to express their disapproval and by doing so to distance themselves so vocally from a bunch of strangers behaving badly?

I suspect that the overwhelming reaction is explained not by shock and surprise of unfamiliar behavior but precisely by the fact that many recognized the aggressive vulgarity of the incident; it might have been outrageous but not necessarily exceptional. Israelis identified a certain Israeliness in this behavior and feared that it would represent them, that it would define their own identity as Israelis.

I was reminded of this reaction in the days following the Israeli elections, when so many members of the Jewish community here in America expressed themselves strongly in response to statements made by Benjamin Netanyahu in the days leading to the March elections. First, Netanyahu reneged on earlier commitments to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a solution that would grant independence to a people controlled by the Israeli military for almost half a century. Then, on Election Day, Netanyahu issued a panicked call to Jewish Israeli voters to fulfill their duty at the ballot, as Arab citizens were turning out “in droves.”

America’s Jews were shocked. In fact, it was surprising how surprised laymen and leaders of the community appeared to be by Netanyahu’s behavior. None of his previous shenanigans received this kind of wall-to-wall rebuke. Neither the constant sticking of fingers in the eyes of American officials during the Kerry-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians almost two years ago, nor the undiplomatic interference in internal Washington politics with his speech to Congress in early March were met with such denunciation.

While for many Israelis this was Bibi-as-usual, American Jewish leaders uncharacteristically expressed surprise and disappointment. I suspect that the reason for the high volume of this response also has something to do with a sense of identity and uncomfortable identification.

After all, Bibi comes across as the most American of Israeli prime ministers, even more than the Milwaukee-raised Golda Meir. Bibi’s Americanism, his mannerism and (by now fading) charm have narrowed the distance between a certain type of Israeli and a certain type of American. The 14th, 18th, 19th, and now 20th prime minister of Israel stands out as an amalgamation of Israeliness and Americanism, the new Jew who could be carrying an Israeli passport just as much as an American one and often will carry both. But then, in a couple of “unguarded moments” people in Israel are so familiar with by now, this Israeli-American prime minister made American Jews uncomfortable. Many of them were taken aback by the racist tone, by the relinquishing of responsibility, by the disregard of previous commitments and of principles of social justice – all entailed by Netanyahu’s comments.

American Jews seemed urged to speak against a behavior they could not be associated with. Members of a prosperous ethnic minority that traditionally aligned itself with the causes of social justice and equality, they had to distance themselves from the kind of discriminatory talk coming from Israel’s outgoing prime minister who, perhaps by force of the very same discriminatory words, was quickly designated prime minister-elect.

The need to distance themselves from all this became urgent precisely because the original distance and difference between the two communities has been systematically undermined in the past few decades. Slowly at first, but in an ever increasing pace, the organized Jewish-American community has been fostering Israel as a source of pride and identification, a place for its erring younger generation to be sent to in order to form a sense of Jewish identity, and come back home.

If in the past, American Jewry mostly supported Israel financially, personally, and politically, it has more recently turned to draw support from Israel in order to construct an attractive identity for the next generation. The combined efforts spelled out the message: We are Israel and Israel is us. The well-orchestrated local celebrations of Israel’s 67th Independence Day and the Fifth Avenue Celebrate Israel Parade are a strong testimony how much America’s Jewish community has been re-forming its public identity in relation to Israel.

If American Jews now find themselves uncomfortable with the opinions (and style) of Israel’s multi-termed prime minister, perhaps they need to rethink the way they have entrenched their own identity in the one of a country far away, where their contributions are welcome but over which they have no say – not in terms of shaping the country’s political landscape nor in influencing its values.

If the great Jewish American community is now alarmed when finding itself identified by statements and behaviors so inimical to the identity it has formed for itself over the centuries, it will need to find a way to draw a boundary. This means that the Jewish community will have to be clear about the social, cultural and even moral values that currently seem to distinguish it from the state run by their relatives overseas.

Ilan Safit, former editor of Yediot America, teaches philosophy at Pace University.