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Monday, September 6, 2010

Are Israelis Rude? Learning Not To Be Polite In Israel

It wasn't long after I started living in Israel that I picked up on the general Israeli impoliteness. It's everywhere - it saturates the entire country. The moment you step foot on the holy land, your circle of personal space shrinks quickly.  In this land, tact is nonessential, conversations are direct and queues have a culture of their own. Strangers make comments to you about things that, in America, you'd only hear from the mouths of close kin.

Now, many Western foreigners get hit hard. The atmosphere in Israel is something new.  The country is developed, modern and civilized.  They see the Americanization at work and wonder how Israelis still aren't behaving American!  They seem so direct and, well, unrefined! In fact, I found a really hilarious post by an Israeli communications company on how to do business with Israelis.  Cheap design aside, they actually get their shit pretty right and try to lay out how and why Israelis conduct business the way they do.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that  most Western tourists make the following assumption: Israeli's are rude and inconsiderate.

But I wouldn't go that far.  They might be impolite, but that doesn't necessarily make them rude. Since this is my blog - I ain't no non-biased journalist- I'm just gonna go ahead and say that there are definitely some annoying things about Israelis and their so-called rudeness.  But, once you embrace it, this lack of etiquitte and politeness can be extremely liberating and refreshing. Sometimes Israelis remind me of the way New Yorkers used to be, before the city got all cleaned up.

In fact, Israel taught me how to stick to my guns and be pushy when the occasion calls for it.  I don't sugar-coat things the way I used to, no matter who I'm talking to and I don't feel like I need to smile and be friendly to stragers if I don't want to. I know how to speak up for myself, and I definitely know how to find the right people to help me get my foot in the right door. 

So, what exactly has contributed this Israeli phenomenon of impoliteness?  Well, here are what I believe are the top 5 reasons Israelis seem so impolite:

1) Most Israelis are Jews.

Take your quintessential Jewish mother, or father- or grandparent, for that matter.  Imagine your Mel Brooks ar Billy Crystal character - a Brooklyn Jew with a strong Eastern European background.

"Francie," she might say with a thick accent, "wat's with your hair today?Eh? It always looks so nice- but today you have this gnarly look, eh?

"Joshua," he might say, "I'm an old man, I've lived through so much...I deserve some extra desert. Go ask the waitress if she'll send over an extra dish."

The presumptuous Eastern European Jew lives on in Israel, a state founded by those same nagging and tactless parents who know the best way to embarrass their children in public. Everything is everyone's business.

2) Much of Israel is Still kinda Third World.

Yes, Israel is a modern country.  Israel has some of the most advanced scientific research facilities in the world. Tel Avivians are style conscious metropolitans and most Israelis are extremely well-traveled global citizens.  However, so many things in Israel still don't work the way they should.

Take for example, the buses.  It's rare to find a bus station with adequate route maps.  The buses themselves have no maps on the walls inside, nor are there bus maps regularly distributed to the public.  When you get on a bus that you've never ridden before to a place you've never been before, the only way to know where you need to get off is to ask the driver or a fellow passenger.  No one announces each stop.  In fact, the bus driver will not even stop at all of the stations.  If he sees no one waiting at the stop, and none of the passengers have pressed the "stop" button, the driver will zoom by a station without a second thought.

The bus schedule is also only a loose timetable.  Never rely on the bus schedules to be accurate.  Buses can arrive 20 minutes late and leave 5 minutes early. If you're waiting for a bus, give yourself some wiggle room.
The buses are only one example of many state-run systems that simply seem to have no real order.  With no order, no sign postings, no public information, the systems become what Israeli's call "Schunah" or "neighborhood".  The people who have been through it know. The newcomers have no clue.  They are forced to communicate with strangers and ask for advice. There is no other way to get by.

3) Israelis are Like one big Family/Neighborhood

"Israelis are a family-orientated people. Blood ties run very thick here and is part of their collective strength. The extended family becomes a network of support and connections meaning that everything in Israel comes down to who you know. This phenomenon they call the combina."
-2006 RoadJunky.com post on Israel 

This couldn't be more true. Israel is a small country, and everyone seems to know everyone somehow. In fact, nearly every time a friend of mine is introduced to someone new, they usually spend the first 5-10 minutes or so trying to figure out how they might know eachother.

 Did they go to school together? Did they grow up in the same neighborhood? Could it be that they went to the same summer camp or served in the same area during the army? 

The thing is, they are almost always connected somehow -whether it be through a relative, a friend, or directly. And that's Israel.  Everyone seems to know everyone and everyone knows how important it is to rely on a little help from their friends.It's this small-town feel that makes who you know so valuable.  People let things slide when they know you.

And this is where the word "Schunah" (שכונה) comes from.  Schunah literally means "neighborhood" but it's most frequently used to refer to the casual, neighborhoody way people go about doing things here.  This is one of the reasons why the police here aren't nearly as scary as American police- it's "schuna".  It's not unlikely that the guy who pulls you over for speeding sat next to you in middle school and wrote you love letters or that his dad was your dentist.

4) Nearly all Israelis Serve in the Army

You certainly learn how to be direct and pushy after you spend 3 years in the Israeli army.  And when I say army, put that clean crew-cut out startched stainless suit of your mind.  This is a draft army.  Fery few actually have the luxury of choosing to enlist: all Israeli citizens are is drafted at 18.  Men serve for three years and women for two.

The Israeli Army is probably the best example of poorly directed Israeli bureaucracy.  I wish I had more first hand info to give you here, but I can tell you that much of the army is serious "schunah" just from hearing my friends's many stories.

5) Hebrew Just Doesn't Traslate Easily to English

Things just sound wrong when they're literally translated from Hebrew to English.  No?

 English is an extraordinarily rich language compared to Hebrew.  By rich, I mean wordy. There are far more words in English, meaning that English is a bit more subtle and a bit more nuanced.  Descriptions can be more specific and niceties are more common.

Hebrew, on the other hand, has relatively few words, many of which are used to describe or refer to more than one concept.  The language is complex, yes, but less wordy and far less subtle.

So when Israelis translate literally to English - everything comes out sounding sharp, blunt, and extremely straight forward.  Fewer words are used in Hebrew to say something in English. Any paper,book, or literary work is simply longer in English.

Plain and simple, Hebrew translated directly to English can easily sounds rude or curt, even if, in Hebrew, it sounds completely normal.

Israelis who have lived in Israel for generations are refereed to in Hebrew as "Saabras".  Saabras are desert fruit that grow on cacti.  You can find them all over Israel.  The fruit's meat is sweet and juicy, and peachy orange to deep red like a beet, or a heart, but the meat is covered in a thick, prickly skin. And to get to the fruit, one has to carefully pick it from the thorny cactus.  The real land-grown Israeli is well known as being hard and prickly on the outside, maybe hard to get through to, but sort, sweet and full of heart on the inside.  Maybe the rudeness is really just that thick prickly skin...because it's true - inside, Israelis have big bleeding hearts.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey Ray!
    I couldn't agree more, especially considering I grew up here. Some of these things go unnoticed by me - like the physical personal space, which made me see Americans as kind of cold when I was in New York.. But I can't help but agree that it's all part of the problem.. There might be good things about it, but at the end, I think that it tends to make our life more difficult. Who would ever think to ask me, abroad, for the price I paid for my bicycle
    ? I can't tell you how many people stopped me, while riding (!!) to ask me that.

    ehh. At least I'm all sweet and gooey inside. and god, I love sabraas. *goes to the icebox, starts peeling*.

    peace, Chica.

  3. Thanks for the comment Melissa! It's true- Israelis are certainly more open about their salaries and general expenditures than Americans and Europeans! xo

  4. Good post, but, like many others defending the "Israeli" attitude, I don't buy it. I've been here 12 years. I lived for more than 20 in NJ.

    Israelis and many olim, justify and laud the Israeli "chutzpah" but it is a sad attempt to try to apologize for an indefensible lack of etiquette, manners, and, more importantly, respect. Israelis may have to be stubborn. We have certainly earned that. But stubbornness does not necessitate a total lack of respect for any person who stands on the other side of a conversation or discussion.

    Israelis equate civility and politeness with weakness. Compromise and sympathy are met with derision and an attempt to dominate. There is no such thing as an assumed level of equality. Here, if someone confronts you, he is the enemy. Until you show him, by your own lack of respect towards him, that you are not someone who can be pushed around, he will treat you as a subordinate.

    Part of it, I believe, comes from the history of useless bureaucracy. Part of it is the army mentality. But whatever the root, it is pathetic and, if I may say so, our biggest weakness. The incessant bullying causes a cycle of intimidation, rudeness, and negativity.

    A young woman enters the army and is bullied by her commanders and probably some of her confederates. If she survives and makes it far enough, she becomes the bullier. Why? Because she went through it, why should her subordinates get off easy?

    A man works as a teller at a bank and is constantly abused by his managers. When someone comes to him and needs help with his banking, our teller is in a position of power and so he abuses the power he has because he was abused and pushes the customer around and is needlessly brusque. That person walks out of the bank and gets in his car, pulls out recklessly and cuts off the driver in the car behind him. Why not? Why should I be the "friar"? The guy in the car behind him, now pissed because he got cut off, refuses to let someone enter the flow of traffic. And on and on...

    Until Israelis can learn that politeness and consideration are not weaknesses; until they learn that courtesy is the lubrication that facilitates civility and progress, we will always be a "third world country".

  5. Hi Josh,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I think that the rudeness factor is a sore point for many non-Israelis living in Isarel, and don't get me wrong- I agree with you 100% that it can be very annoying and "uncivilized".

    And yes- the examples you gave of the army are quite poignant.

    There is a draft army here that, as I said, does significantly culture here and many times roughs people up.

    I do think that abuse of power and rudeness are two different things, and that, overall, there are good and bad things about the "rudeness" and "impoliteness" in Israel.

    I have actually found that in the states I had learned to "agree to disagree" to everything. The first time I said this phrase in Israel in Hebrew, (להסכים לא להסכים) my friends stared at me as if I was an alien. They didn't understand why I wouldn't simply state my opinion- why I had to make my disagreement into some sort of agreement.

    And I have to say, living in Israel has helped me find my opinion and stick to it- and stick to my guns without feeling the need to sugar coat anything or be overly polite.

    It's also helped me open up to people. I talk more to those I'm standing in line with and complain when I feel like it because, well, here it's ok and it really isn't the same as complaining in the states.

    However, there are people in Israel who are exceedingly crude and even cruel, yes. And the culture of survival has lead to a sort of brutality here which can reach extremes.

    These extremes, as you said, are a weakness for sure. And our third-world nature is a weakness when it comes to politics in the western world and our ability to forge alliances with western forces.

    But I don't think that "third world country" is always a bad thing. In fact, I like to embrace some of that third worldness.

  6. Great post!! I think you hit a lot of the key aspects of this right on.
    As a Canadian who has been here for 8 years, I think part of the issue is that as Westerners, we are so sensitive to social customs that it takes us a while to distinguish between plain old third-world rudeness (that does exist here, but isn't completely pervasive) and "Israeli hutzpa". They are two very different things. I remember as a tourist I had no idea and I just thought everyone was rude. Now I'm an Israeli and I've met so many Israelis who have good manners (but are still very assertive and direct) that I have stopped justifying out-and-out rudeness by blaming Israeli culture.

  7. I dislike the Israeli mentality:
    1. no respect
    2. push their nose into your matters (ask you something, criticize your answer, suggest their own 'wisdom' even if you don't really ask for it)
    3. try to be stronger and 'better' by stepping on you through lying, manipulation and corruption.
    etc etc...
    I can write so much about this mentality.

    I don't think its the military service of 3 years. I know it's not, even the opposite - it should make you more disciplined and respect others. I also don't think its the elements of third-world country in Israel.

    I think the reason is the difficult political situation with so many people with different point of views. But probably the main reason is that Israel, as a 'young' established formal country has people with very different backgrounds and countries they came from. Some brought their own customs and mentalities with them.

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  11. One may say that Israelies are might be not polite but yet, have a good heart.
    You can't choose your family, can't you?
    Rubbish. Israelies don't see others as their family. They are just selfish, indosiderate exuse for human beings.

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  13. Unfortunately I am forced to agree with anon from June 7, 2011 4:54 AM.

  14. I, as a foreigner living in Tel Aviv,experience this so-called " rudeness" on a daily basis.
    I think that Israel is a great country but Israeli rudeness should not by any means promoted nor justified.
    It is not a matter of " courtesy" but a constant lack of respect towards the others what bothers me about Israeli behaviour.
    And its true that generalisations tend to be unfair but let's face it, rudeness and lack of respect are a too much of a common thing here in Israel.

  15. Israelis are different because the basic culture is different:

    In south Africa where I was raised when you had a problem with another kid, you went to the teacher, and the teacher SOLVED your problem.

    when I moved to Israel and got picked on (10yrs old) I wen to the teacher, and the teacher said to my mom "He keeps tattling on other kids, you need to get him in line)

    In other countries:
    - you did not fight your battles. You had the "institution" fight for you.

    In Israel:
    - If you don't take care of yourself, no one will do it for you.

    I think this is the basis for Israeli Huzpah.
    I also think it's the basis for Startup-Nation.

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