Israelis traveling outside the country have developed a reputation for unruliness and rudeness. A chance encounter at the check-in counter at Madrid airport a week ago drove home this perception in spades. After reaching the woman at the counter and apologizing for the delay in finding the locator form for entry into Great Britain, checking the bags, and thanking her for her patience, she asked that I remove my mask. A routine request in these confusing days of international travel. She then thanked me, saying that she wanted to see the face of the first person during her twelve years with the airlines “from your country” who did not raise her voice, argue or yell “especially at their wives.” I was stunned. Apologizing for my compatriots, I was told it is not my fault. She didn’t understand when I explained that it pains me that this is the way she sees Israelis.
It is much too facile to dismiss this brief exchange as evidence of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, or rising anti-Israel sentiments. Flashback to 36 hours earlier when a delayed and totally overbooked flight of the very same airlines left some 30 passengers, who had waited for hours to check-in, behind. The mayhem led by Israeli passengers was unbelievable, just as the way they were treated was inexcusable. The flight landed eleven hours late without a single suitcase in the hold. The subsequent pandemonium should best be left to one’s imagination.
Yet such tales are commonplace. Israeli citizens, in their free and frank way, have long been noted for the vocalness of both their joy and their frustrations. They have never been lauded for their decorum or for their concern for rules, regulations and protocols. Stereotypes are by their very nature exaggerated; they do, however, rest on more than a kernel of truth.
These scenes – and even more aggressive experiences – are familiar to most Israelis from their daily life at home. Violence and offensive conduct have become a national scourge in Israel. Headlines of the last few weeks scream of escalation on every possible front: in the workplace, in the home, in educational institutions, on the football pitch, in hospitals, on the streets, in parking lots, on public transportation, in the fields, on building sites, in the Knesset, in the media, on social networks, and even at weddings and funerals. What were once discrete locations of infection within Israel and the West Bank have metastasized to virtually every nook and cranny in the country. The general atmosphere is not particularly pleasant. For the victims, it is downright dangerous.
Confrontational behavior comes in many shapes and forms. The distance between speaking one’s mind and verbal abuse is often paper thin. When David Amsalem, the Likud party whip, launches into a tirade against the government in order to induce a commotion in the Knesset, he is normalizing a discourse that is usually not heard even in Israel’s traditionally freewheeling parliament. When he then proceeds to imply that the targets of his ire deserve to be crushed, as he frequently does, he crosses into the realm of incitement. These kinds of diatribes have infected the airwaves, the social media, and even the daily news – during which, as a matter of course, discussions quickly morph into unintelligible yelling matches amid a cacophony of screeching voices.
It is but a short step from vitriolic language to brutal behavior. Too many arguments over petty matters – places in line, parking slots – end up in scuffles and even broken bones. The personnel in hospitals are accosted as a matter of course by irate families clamoring to see their sick or injured kin. In Soroka and Meir hospitals these brawls deteriorated lately into full-scale violent confrontations. High-profile people in the public domain – appointed officials as well as government ministers and members of the Knesset – are increasingly threatened. Too many are now walking around with 24-hour protection.
Sexual harassment, alas, is a perfect example of all this and more. There is barely a woman – regardless of age – who has evaded chauvinist innuendos. The extent of sexual harassment is truly harrowing (according to recent research, over 60% of women in the country have been subjected to intimate overtures in the workplace). And, as last week Israel marked yet another international commemoration of the struggle against violence against women, more statistics of domestic violence surfaced. On that very day, Rasha Satawi, a 32-year-old woman from Maghar, was shot dead in her home. She was the 22nd victim to die this year of gender-based violence.
Much of this pattern has its roots deep in Israel’s history and the dynamics of its development. It has cultural, economic, social, and political underpinnings that defy attempts to attribute this outbreak to one community or group, as is too frequently asserted by those who choose, for political as well as instrumental reasons, to lay the problem at the doorstep of Arab society in Israel. Each assaulting and accosted segment of Israeli society has contributed its share to this dreary picture by continuously demonstrating that it has lost its capacity to differentiate between anti-civic actions and the social identity of its perpetrators. Therefore, the greater the manifestations of this unruliness, the more obvious, too, the expressions of the insidious effects of growing polarization.
In too many places – especially in the West Bank, Jerusalem, mixed cities and the periphery – the situation has come to verge on anarchy. This is the most palpable outward sign of the breakdown of the rule of law after too many years of flaunting directives, bypassing procedures, reveling in incompetent political appointments, and outright corruption on a country-wide scale. All this is evidence of the unraveling of the overarching democratic norms that dictate the resolution of disagreements in nonviolent ways.
Behind the current instances of verbal harangues, physical abuse and blatant violence lie deep-seated power inequities that have become increasingly institutionalized in recent years. The most obvious and best documented go back at least to Israel’s occupation of lands captured in 1967 (some claim that the problem dates to 1948 and before). What was acquired by military means and is still maintained by force sets a pattern of asymmetrical power relations that reverberates widely. It exacerbates embedded inequities based on religion and culture not only in the public domain, but also in the private sphere. The intersection between these skewed modes of interaction makes their impact on the spread of unruly behavior even greater.
It should surprise nobody that these modes of conduct are then exported by Israelis to other countries, especially recently after their temporary liberation from the confines imposed by the covid pandemic. A prelude was visible just this past summer in Eilat when caution was thrown to the wind by an influx of Israeli vacationers who trampled on everything (and each other) in rowdy public stand-offs and stampedes at hotels and youth hostels.
The “ugly Israeli” syndrome cannot be eradicated without firm action at home. Every instance of abusive conduct must be called out wherever it takes place: in the cabinet, the Knesset, the schoolyard, the streets, or at home. Its perpetrators cannot continue their noxious ways without swift and firm consequences. And above all, it is high time to address the underlying causes that fuel the loss of restraint in thought and action. This is a long-term undertaking, one which requires planning, patience and commitment. It involves recognition of the centrality of transformative change along with an understanding that such a fundamental overhaul is critical to preventing Israeli society in all its complexity from continuing on the disastrous road towards self-implosion.
And in the meantime, here as well as outside the country, each and every Israeli should remember that the country’s internal fabric and external image depends on how they speak, act and treat those they meet at airports, restaurants, hotels, shops, or just walking down the street. They may even discover that their good conduct is reciprocated with a cordiality that will make their stay that much more refreshing and rewarding.