Walking in Tel Aviv
© Götz Keller, via Flickr
Walking in Tel Aviv
Last updated: June 10, 2015

The softer Israel

Banner Icon Naava Mashiah returns to Israel for the first time in two years. And she finds something surprising: people are nicer to each other. Why is that?

The title of this article is not an ‘oxymoron’ – a seemingly self contradictory term – of the softer Israel.  During my last visit to Israel, it was apparent that people are treating their compatriots ‘nicer.’   Israelis are not known for their impeccable manners and etiquette. The native born are nicknamed sabras which are the prickly fruit of the cactus.  In other words, Israeli natives are ‘soft and sweet’ on the inside but ‘crass’ on the outside. As a sabra I can vouch that there is kernel of truth to this moniker. 

However, this time when I landed after a two year hiatus from the country, I immediately noticed that people are more courteous and sympathetic to each other. It raised a question mark in my mind. What happened? What occurred since my last visit to account for this improvement of behaviour? 

I asked the most reliable source… my taxi driver, who fetched me from the airport. His explanation was simple: “It was the war in the summer… the war created a communal atmosphere that we are all in the same boat.” 

“But we have had so many wars in the past…what was unique about this war?” It was the first time that rockets rained on the center of the country.  People felt vulnerable. It created a feeling of unity since the battle was not just taking place over the border or in the peripheries. This shared traumatic experience weaved a sense of community and the urgency to look out for one’s peer. The war was no longer a phenomenon restricted for the peripheries. 

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Bus stop in Tel Aviv. Credit: Götz Keller, via Flickr

Israelis called Tel Aviv during the recent elections, Medinat Tel Aviv, Country of Tel Aviv, as if it seceded from the rest of the country due to its secular atmosphere. A situation which is changing. There are several campaigns to bring the secular citizens closer to Judaism, to encourage them to observe certain rituals, to find more meaning in Judaism. There are wide campaigns to hold ‘kabbalat Shabbat’, which is the traditional  blessing and dinner on Friday eve. There are several movements reaching out to seculars to encourage them Lihthazek or Lihitkarev to Judaism which means to ‘strengthen’ and ‘get closer’ to Jewish values. 

You can see the outspoken new spiritualism being displayed at the airport as young parents rock their babies in strollers and mouth the prayers out loud. Prayer used to be a private issue done in the corner of one’s home or synagogue. However, now you see people openly on the road stopping and praying, it is increasingly more acceptable to pray publicly.  

At a rendezvous with my friend, Aliza, who just turned 60, she explained to me that the education is also getting more religious across the board. Her four-year-old granddaughter who attends a public kindergarten in a village north of Tel Aviv, is now correcting her on how to put on a head scarf the right way when lighting the Shabbat candles. Could this return to religion influence the way people behave towards each other? 

Another reason for the improvement of behavior is accredited to the challenging economic situation for the average Israeli, including the  high cost of housing and sky rocketing living expenses. It is true that Israel prides itself on Hi Tech IPOs and innovative industries. Today, Israel is an independent energy producing country. The building of infrastructure has massively increased including widening of major highways, and erecting of tall bridges for the train connecting Tel Aviv to the capital.   Luxury penthouses and apartments have replaced older shabby districts both in Jerusalem and the suburbs of Tel Aviv. A row of skyscrapers now jot out of main arteries in Tel Aviv both over the Ayalon and Rothschild Boulevard. However, this momentum excludes a majority of the Israeli population which are feeling the strain of the economic challenges and cannot afford basic needs for their housing, education and health. This was the cause of the socio-economic protest which burst on the scene in the summer of 2011. 

According to one observer, the population decided to fix the few problems they CAN control by acting ‘a bit nicer’ to one another. So many elements are out of control such as the turbulent geopolitical circumstances in the neighbourhood. ISIS is solely an hour away over the border, and the generally chaotic region does not add much serenity to the Israeli society. So they decided to control what they can and be more polite to each other. 

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A third explanation to this improvement of behaviour came from a lady who moved from the UK about twenty years ago. She put it plainly; Israelis travel abroad a lot. And they are picking up different mannerisms from their travels realizing life can be different. They have imported the mannerisms from their trips abroad. That is an interesting theory, indeed. However, I tend to believe the cultivated behaviour is due to the first two aforementioned reasons.

The wearing down of the perpetual defence narrative which kept Israelis united, as well as the current economic strain, has brought people to feel more connected. They are seeking more meaning to their existence in this Eastern Mediterranean stretch of land. As a result some are coming back to religion or Jewish pillars and values. The secular population feel the need to conserve part of the rituals of Judaism or find out about their origins. 

Simultaneously, I noticed that the Arab community in Jaffa has also shifted towards religion. The percentage of women who are now covered in hijab has spiked since my last visit two years ago. Generally, in a world of instability, people search for an anchor, and in the Holy Land, the anchor for the peoples remains to be religion and treating each other with a tad more civility.

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Naava Mashiah
Naava is CEO of M.E. Links and active in Middle Eastern Informal Diplomacy. She is also a member of Your Middle East's Advisory Board. Her latest book IsraEL 2023 can be found here: http://goo.gl/PzuBqf
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