JERUSALEM – Foreigners tend to view the Israeli conception of politeness as, well….rustic.

It’s been 30 years since the French pharmacist Joel Dreyfuss moved to the Holy City after his first 20 years in Strasbourg, in eastern France. He had quite a revealing experience when he was back last summer visiting the French Alsace region, and went out shopping. He found himself demanding something with an “I want…” like a true Israeli, and thus was denied his request by a local shopkeeper. He also got a good lecturing to: “Here Sir we say “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and “goodbye””. Joel Dreyfuss was stunned: “That’s when I realized how rude I had become!”

It may begin with the language itself. Linguists will explain that while both English and Hebrew (unlike French and other Latin languages) have no current distinction between the formal and informal “you,” English is technically missing the informal use of the word – and Hebrew has no formal “you.”

This bears consequences: no social barriers, no signs of respect and no real popular notions of politeness and courtesy. In schools, teachers have given up: students don’t say hello, they do not ask permission to speak, or to rise from their chair. In fact, they copy their elders: in shops, most Israelis shout and shove people aside to cut their place in line.

The newly arrived European and Ashkenazi Jewish women get used to it: no one will hold the door for them, no one will let them go first, and people on the street will give an ironic smile upon passing a courteous husband opening the car door for his wife.

Speaking of the car…rule number one is: there are no rules. The rest goes without saying: drive like a maniac, never use your blinker, pass on the right, cut people off.

“It is actually true,” says an Israeli diplomat. “We have a really bad reputation when it comes to good manners and courtesy. Let’s say that we prefer to keep our relationships with others straightforward and informal.”

Formality as hypocrisy

This last sentence is a euphemism: an Israeli will show up unannounced at your place, walk right into the living room, ask for a tour, plop themselves down on your couch. Some might even ask how much the place is worth!

This rejection of the notion of formality, which Israeli’s tend to see as some kind of hypocrisy, can trace its roots to the moral philosophy of the kibbutz: all kibbutzniks are equal, they share the unrewarding chores and no one is to be superior to anyone else.

There is a famous drawing that captures the founding mentality, poking fun at the German Jews who arrived in Israel in the 1930’s with their good manners: the picture shows two German Jews plowing the earth and continually offering each other a spade with the following dialogue: " bitte schön ", " danke schön ", " bitte schön ", " danke schön "... (“please”, “thanks”, “please”, “thanks”…).

Since these customs have long since spread into the army and the working world, they continue to deeply affect people’s behaviors and beliefs. Being polite is petty bourgeois and has nothing to do with the country’s pioneer spirit. Besides, Israel is a country “at war” and can’t afford to waste time over such trivialities.

Still, it’s always worth scratching the surface of so-called national characteristics. If they stay long enough, most foreigners will also find that Israeli people are friendly and easy-going; and fundamentally stand together, always ready to help each other out if needed. This helps explain why people born in Israel are called sabras. It is the name of the fruit that comes out of a cactus: well-known for being prickly on the outside but sweet inside.

Read the original article in French

Photo - ianloic