An old friend from a prominent Western country recently told me this story about his security check at Ben-Gurion Airport. Having served as a senior diplomat in numerous Arab countries (as well as in Israel), he is routinely given “special” security attention whenever he lands in Tel Aviv. So, when he came to Israel to attend a major policy conference he was not surprised to be pulled aside and detained for an extended period by security officials alerted by the stamps in his passport.
“I have no problem with the extra security check,” he told me. “It is entirely reasonable and I respect it every time.” The only thing that bothered him was that when the process was over he was curtly handed back his passport without as much as a “sorry for the inconvenience.” “You guys spend so much time concerned about Israel’s image in the world,” he said. “I’ve got the solution. It’s called please and thank you.”
It is not clear how widespread this kind of experience is. I doubt the Israeli official wordlessly returning the passport to my friend meant any ill by forgetting his manners. More likely than not, it simply did not occur to him that some polite phrase was in order. He was, after all, finally sending him on his way, and that was all that mattered.
This brusqueness of style is something often associated with Israelis, and in which some take a measure of pride. In a way, it reflects a core feature of the traditional Zionist ethos, which has always prioritized concrete actions over politely formulated words. “It doesn’t matter what the goyim say,” David Ben-Gurion once famously (if undiplomatically) quipped. “It matters what the Jews do.” At some fundamental level, this focus on the bottom-line, on the tachlis, expresses a core conviction that with the rebirth of Israel, the Jewish people have finally taken their future into their own hands.
This same impulse encourages a certain suspicion for niceties. At worst, they smack of servility and confuse priorities between form and substance. At best, they are a distraction from the urgent challenge of building and protecting the State. The task at hand remains too great, and the opponents are too powerful to have time for civility. A stubborn preoccupation on results, even if feathers are ruffled in the process, is simply a necessity.
Tourists visiting Israel today have conflicting reactions when confronted with this same phenomenon. For some, the gruff Israeli manner is simply rude and off-putting. They leave with an impression of Israel as a rough and unfriendly place.
For others, there is something genuine and endearing about this down-to-earth style. Israelis like to explain that people tend to be rudest within their own family. The complete stranger telling you to put a jacket on, or pushing you in a queue, is thus an expression of intimacy, not insolence. Indeed, there is no shortage of extraordinary kindness in day-to-day Israeli life, but it is not always accompanied by common expressions of courtesy that still strike many as “mere words.”
The problem of course is that in our interactions with people, how we do things is often not less important than what we do. Even if an inconvenience or interference is understandable, it makes a profound difference if it is verbally acknowledged. Indeed, the very same action can produce opposite impressions, depending on whether it is accompanied with expressions of understanding and respect.
Zionism is not just about Jewish self-empowerment. It is also about the return of the Jewish people to history. In founding the State, the Jewish people were often compelled to operate in the face of overwhelming opposition and in spite of systems that were tilted against us. Developing a tough skin and harsh determination was a critical ingredient for success. But returning to the world stage has also required another set of skills – the capacity to engage on equal footing, and respectfully, with those around us, to play according to the rules.
There should be no inherent contradiction between being results-oriented and being well-mannered. For Israel, however, given the opposition and bias that we continue to face, the two can sometimes still produce friction. In these cases, especially when key interests are at stake, we are compelled to prefer results, even if it is regarded as unfriendly or unsettling to others.
But in all other instances, paying attention to form, and not just to substance, is not just in our interests. It is a better expression of the kind of character our tradition seeks to cultivate. “And you shall do the right and good,” the verse in Deuteronomy tells us (6:18). We aspire, our prophets and commentators remind us, not only to right but to righteousness, paying attention not only to the legitimacy of the goal, but to the decency and kindness we demonstrate as we pursue it.