Sunday, May 31, 2009

Zionism and the New Jews

In response to my last post, one of my friends asked a very good question:

"As you said in your blog, Jerusalem (and in truth, much of Israel) is inhabited by people who are more "assertive" than we might like.  The stories and jokes about that are legion.  And my own experiences in Israel suggest that they are not exaggerations.  I've wondered why.  Is it climate, history, tradition, intellectual fervor misdirected, or something else all together?  Your ideas?"

Well, I'm hardly an expert, but let me try to offer my opinion here. 

To begin with, a caveat:  this is a broad generalization that I have made.  Many individual Israelis are relaxed, courteous, and gracious.  Indeed, I have often found people to be extraordinarily generous.  Numerous times when I have been short money or exact change, local shopkeepers have just said, "Pay me later."  I've had folks open their houses--and hearts--to me in remarkable displays of hospitality.  

And it is also the case that "aggressiveness" is relative to culture.  To many Asians, Americans are incredibly aggressive.  So a lot is just what you are accustomed to experiencing.

With all that said, I do have a few thoughts on why Israeli culture tends to be, from my vantage point, a bit rough around the edges in some ways.

Perhaps there is a regional aspect to this.  Israeli culture is similar to many other Mediterranean societies: Greece, Italy, and other Arab countries in the region.  All tend to be rather direct, assertive, a bit on the "macho" side, at least on surface level.

And maybe Jewish intellectual tradition is a part of it, too.  As any student of Talmud knows, we have always been an argumentative people.  Maybe we have simply transferred some of our intellectual and textual traditions to daily life.

But I believe the most important factor is Jewish history.  Israel was established, in many ways, as a kind of rejection of diaspora values.  The early Zionists wanted to create a society that was entirely different from the one they left behind in Europe.  This was even truer after the Holocaust.  Above all,  the Israeli enterprise was about re-making Jews from history's constant "victims" into powerful masters of our own destiny.  I believe that one by-product of this is a tendency towards aggressiveness in daily life.  The worst thing one can be here is a "sucker," someone who is taken advantage of by others.  That is the way of the Jewish past, which Israelis adamantly reject.  As a result, everyone wants to be on top, leading to a bit of a Darwinian society.

My two cents.  Let me know what you think, either agreeing or disagreeing.

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