Israeli Civility

By Irv Cantor

Inconsiderate behavior, illogical rules and regulations, bureaucracy. How often do you hear American olim complaining about these aspects of Israeli society?

Truthfully, however, American olim would adjust much more easily to Israeli society if they would accept the cultural differences. It is also important to realize that cultural norms evolve; even if it takes time, there is no question that Israeli society is undergoing change—change that Americans would consider “for the better.”

What are some of the cultural differences that American olim have difficulty with? Let’s look first at the salesperson-customer relationship. In America, you hear the refrain “the customer is always right,” and generally businesses adhere to this principle. In Israel, however, the seller is the expert, the one who lets you know what you want. On the up side, the Israeli seller is often looking out for you, protecting you from purchasing an inferior product, and offering you the best deal for your money.

Consider this real-life example. I decided to end my cable TV service and use an antenna to get the various channels. Friends showed me their antennas, which cost about 150 shekels. I went to an electronics store and asked what was available in that price range. The salesman asked, “Where in Jerusalem do you live?” Surprised by his question, I gave him my address. He took out a sheet of paper, drew a rough map of my neighborhood and asked me to indicate the exact location of my building. I complied. He then told me that all I needed was a small thin wire antenna for 30 shekels. Doubtful, I asked if he was sure. He reached for a box with an image of a large plastic bird-shaped antenna. He said, “This is 150 shekels. It’s ugly! If the wire antenna does not work, come back and I will sell this one to you.” I bought the wire antenna.

It worked beautifully.

American olim complain about the seeming rudeness they encounter, but perhaps the best word to help a new oleh understand the supposed insensitivity found among some Israelis is “family.” Think about arguments that erupt in the typical family: voices shouting, hands flying about for emphasis, faces turning away from each other and then toward each other again . . . and then a pause and silence. Sometimes there may be a resolution, other times not. Either way, the family goes on as a family, and those who so passionately disagreed a few minutes earlier are helping and supporting each other minutes later. So it is in Israel. Directness and honesty are valued. Grudges are not held for long.

A friend of mine who made aliyah recently from the States stood in line in a supermarket. A man cut the line directly in front of him. My friend didn’t say anything, but thought “only in Israel.” When the woman in front of the line cutter had to pay for her groceries, she realized she was five shekels short. As she tried to decide which item to leave out, a hand appeared in front of her with a five-shekel coin.

It was the line cutter.

And yet, despite their reputation, Israelis are changing. Israelis are becoming more customer-service oriented, more considerate and more thoughtful. Most likely, this change is the result of several factors. The Israeli government has created new training programs for government workers focusing on attitude and customer service. Additionally, Israelis travel much more extensively nowadays and are exposed to different cultures. Recently, I sat in a Jerusalem municipal office, waiting to pay my city taxes. To note my turn, as in most offices, I had to take a petek, ticket, with a number on it. My ticket was labeled 187. A digital sign on the wall indicated the number of the person currently being served. It displayed number 165. I waited. When my number was called, I approached the clerk. She said, “I’m sorry, but the other side of the room is for paying taxes. Wait there. Keep your petek.” Frustrated, I walked around to the other large waiting room, sat down and glanced at the digital sign on the wall. It displayed number 15. Grumbling in disbelief, I thought, here goes my whole day. I watched the numbers go from 15 to 16, to 17 and then—to the consternation of everyone around me—to 187. As I thankfully took my turn, the sign reverted back to 18.

Americans value civility and the suppression of true feelings. Israelis prize truth and directness. To an Israeli, civility is often perceived as dishonesty or deception. Politeness can sometimes conceal or misrepresent true feelings. Israelis also place great value on being an am echad.

Israeli drivers are known to lean on their horns much of the time. But you will also see an Israeli driver lean out of his window, yell at the incompetence of other drivers and then suddenly pull over to the shoulder to help a driver with a mechanical problem.

Somehow, the small traces of insensitivity observed sometimes are overshadowed by the much larger and deeper demonstrations of caring and concern. In Israel, we are all each other’s mother, father, brother or sister. Israeli civility is not superficial courtesy. Israeli civility means we are part of a special people who care about each and every individual.

Dr. Irv Cantor happily retired to Jerusalem from New Jersey in 2012, after a dual career in psychology and pharmaceutical research.

This article was featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Jewish Action.
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