Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thirty years in Israeli society

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of my aliya (immigration) to Israel. This was probably the most formative event of my life, since my whole sense of identity is tied up with being bilingual and bicultural. I have spent over 75% of my life in this country, and I seem to alternate between having a sense of belonging and still feeling like an outsider, observing society with some detachment. Obviously, I am Israeli, but then, being Israeli can mean so many things!

One of the things I like most about Israeli society is its diversity. There are people here descended from many generations who have lived in this country, and people who came here from other countries, or whose parents did. There are people of a wide range of religions, languages and cultures. While there is an attempt, in the education system and in the media, to forge (in both senses of this word) an Israeli identity, some consensus about what it means to be part of the Hebrew-speaking Jewish majority in this country, many people differ from this norm in various ways.

Another thing I like here is the openness about emotions and the sort of straight-forwardness of most Israelis. It seems healthy to me that people can, for example, cry in public, embrace their friends, and spend a whole week in mourning (the Jewish shiva). I think, or hope, that this attitude is preventing Israeli society from adopting the worst extremes of political correctness.

However, there are many things I dislike about this society. The other side of the open approach is that Israelis (vast generalization here...) tend to be less considerate. I'm not talking about lip-service politeness and fake smiles, but real concern for the needs of others. This lack of consideration is expressed in impatience, rudeness, selfishness and sometimes aggression. I encounter examples of these behaviours every day, and while there is some improvement in certain aspects, such as the politeness and efficiency of various companies' telephone support staff, Israeli society has a long way to go.

The other most obvious aspect of Israeli society that disturbs me and sometimes prevents me from identifying with the country, is its inherent and often unconscious racism. It is assumed that it is important to know if someone is Jewish or not. The non-Jewish citizens here are routinely, though often unconsciously discriminated against, and the ideas of coexistence and equality are not implemented in any systematic way, despite sporadic attempts. Mixed marriages are still generally considered a taboo.

Perhaps both of these aspects, the lack of consideration for others and the importance of racial identity, stem from the collective past of the Jews. After being victimized for generations, Jews are brought up to expect to be attacked or at least discriminated against, so they seem to have become self-centered as a defence mechanism. In the same way, the racism inherent in having a Jewish State is part of the struggle for survival. Assimilation into other societies didn't work, and many Jews believe it is vital to keep the race going by having a state where Jews can be safe, and also by preventing mixed marriages. As the child of such a mixed marriage, I am constantly conscious that some people here would prefer my parents never to have married, and for me never to have been born (or at least to have converted)... This keeps me aware of my outsider and observer status within Israeli society. Though, to be honest, this is probably not the only reason I feel like an outsider.

What I would like to see is Israeli society becoming confident enough to increase its tolerance and consideration for others. Statistics published this week show that about 76% of Israeli citizens are Jewish, and I think this is a strong enough majority to permit greater acceptance of minorities and an end to the feeling that being considerate implies letting everyone walk all over you.

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