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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Israel/America ‘Dugri’ Gap

If there’s a common theme running through Israeli and American Jewry’s thoughts about each other, it’s communication style. This is not a function of English and Hebrew but rather of culture and sociology. And the gap is only getting wider.

The Israeli approach is called “dugri” i.e., straight talk, no beating around the bush, rough at the edges, telling it like it is. There are several historical and sociological reasons for this – mostly speculative but logical. First, early Zionists saw themselves as the antithesis of the Diaspora Jew. Whereas of necessity Jews in galut had to hide their real intent vis-à-vis the authorities, or even worse – were required (or thought they had) to be obsequious in a Gentile world – the Zionist pioneers made a conscious (and even pronounced) effort to constitute the “negation of the diaspora.” Second, a pioneering society almost by definition is rougher around the edges (think the 1828 Jacksonian Revolution in US history) with little time or inclination for the “niceties” of life. This was especially true of Palestine’s Jews before the state’s establishment, and even more so after 1948 with massive Arab attacks and even the more massive efforts needed to absorb and assimilate hundreds of thousands of Jews. Third and finally, precisely because of this early polyglot population, there was no room for linguistic nuance between Israelis from different ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds; you had to state things simply and directly in Hebrew to make yourself understood.

America today is on the opposite end of the linguistic spectrum. Not only is everyone “nice” to each other (at least overtly) – even checkout counter workers offer “have a nice day” on a regular basis – but the country has moved deeply into “sensitivity” discourse. Americans have become averse to saying anything that might potentially “offend” others, even inventing terms that “neutralize” the possible negative connotations of formerly standard nomenclature.

In and of itself, this American penchant for anodyne talk is not a negative phenomenon; there’s nothing wrong about being sensitive to others or trying to smooth social relations with nondescript chatting. However, it does become problematic when style turns into substance. This has become especially deleterious in American academia today, when propounding the “wrong” idea can lead to professors being sanctioned, suspended, or even fired. Worse yet, many college students are not willing to hear ideas that could cause them “emotional harm”; many institutions of higher learning now have “safe spaces” for students to retire to when they need to “recover” from some intellectually intimidating concept heard in class!

When I mention this to my Israeli students, they are bemused – even dumbfounded. It’s hard for them to wrap their head around college students having to “recover” from anything other than a missile attack. But then I point out that this phenomenon is not totally alien to the Israeli mindset: try saying anything even neutral about the “Naqba” (Israel’s 1948 State establishment that is considered a “disaster” from the Arab perspective) and watch the fur fly.

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened this past week when one of Israel’s cultural icons – Rivka Michaeli – mentioned that she would attend a joint Jewish-Palestinian commemoration/ bereavement event for the Naqba, memorializing Arabs who died in that war. Immediately, a vituperative campaign commenced against her, calling for boycotting all her future appearances in the theater. That comes after the year-long controversy regarding the Israel Prize given to Prof. Oded Goldreich who supposedly called for a boycott of Israel due to its treatment of Palestinians (the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of his receiving the prize, despite the veto of two successive Ministers of Education, officially in charge of handing out the prestigious prize). In American parlance, Israel has its own “Cancel Culture”!

So, both Israel and the US have their discourse “weaknesses.” Nevertheless, there is a significant difference. In Israel, there is basically only one, general hyper-sensitive issue: the Palestinian conflict writ large; in America, such sensitivities run the gamut from evolutionary psychology to black-white relations, and lots in between.

Does this mean that there’s no hope for closing the gap between American and Israeli Jewry? Perhaps there is some light in this tunnel. A recent academic study has found that contrary to popular belief, its results only partially support the “distancing hypothesis” (https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-981-16-2717-0_71-1). Many Israeli officials feel that the best way to further close any gap is to have more American Jews visit Israel. Certainly, it would be easy for many to fall in love with this fantastic country – but that’s as long as they didn’t have too many in-depth exchanges with their Israeli counterparts. Even in English, they would be having two very different “conversations”… .

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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