Essay – Why Americans don’t understand Israeli Jews

A lack of trust in the market, passion for the military and jokes about the Holocaust. What is it about Israeli Jews that Americans just don’t get?


About two weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “Why Israelis don’t understand Jewish Americans,” where I made assertions as to what drives rifts between the two peoples. This time, I’ve flipped the coin and am taking a look at why Americans don’t understand Israeli Jews, either.

Hadag Nachash has rapped it, and Israelis around the world have screamed it: they are not “friars”, or “suckers.” Israelis are well known for questioning sources and trying to “game” the system. Many Americans understand this, in terms of world politics; Israelis have felt ignored by world politicians and media before, so it makes sense that they would distrust many of these same sources today. However, Americans just don’t understand why Israelis don’t seem to trust one another. Why is an Israeli would try to get around another Israeli, or why, when an Israeli goes to the market he might bargain with the vendor or check all the fruit in the bottom of the basket to make sure the vendor didn’t hide rotten products in with the fresh. Such a phenomenon confuses Americans. They won’t ask a salesman to make sure the electronic item they’re purchasing will work, nor will they check all the eggs in a carton to make sure they aren’t broken. Americans have some implicit trust in one another. While this may seem trivial, the lack of trust might have deeper ramifications in domestic politics — if Israelis don’t trust each other in the market, how will they trust each other in government, where they must pass laws to help the country progress?

Israeli and American flags - Photo by: Alex Levac

Israeli and American flags - Photo by: Alex Levac

Most Americans hate it when Israelis say to them, “Well, you don’t live here, so you don’t know,” when discussing Israeli politics. Yes, most Americans can understand that they do not suffer the consequences of Israeli and regional politics on an everyday basis—or for that matter, ever. However, the logic of stating that someone who doesn’t reside in a country can’t comment on its politics seems to completely diverge from accepting objective opinion, and also seems to counter any foreign policy analyst who isn’t exclusively commenting on his or her own country. It is precisely because Americans don’t live in Israel that they feel they can be less emotional about issues relating to Israel.

Another sensitive spot is political incorrectness. Many Israelis will joke about racism, the Holocaust or terrorist attacks, oftentimes as a way of coping with the political and military situation in the country. For Americans, these jokes are simply incomprehensible. For one, Americans have had few terrorist attacks on their own soil, unlike the second intifada, for example, in Israel. Second, America’s history of racism is a turbulent one, fought over centuries, and remains a sensitive topic today. American political and social culture denounces overt jokes on subjects like terrorism or race—even sketch comedies in the United States favor nuanced commentary on race or war rather than outright jokes about the subjects, which Israeli comedies favor. For most Americans, telling a joke about a bomb would be in extremely poor taste. So, when the Israeli father of incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel makes a comment about an Arab, most likely intended as a joke, it becomes national news and the subject of a sizable controversy.

The army is also viewed in completely different ways by Israelis and Americans. For Americans, the military is a place where you learn how to fight and use weapons against an enemy. The majority of Americans do not serve, and those who do are oftentimes deployed to regions far beyond their home country. There hasn’t been a draft in the United States since Vietnam (even then it was extraordinarily unpopular) and no universal civil service requirement exists either. Many Americans believe the Israel Defense Forces should reflect the military in the United States, but in most cases it doesn’t. The way I see it, Israelis look at the army as a time to bond with other countrymen and women, a place to learn a skill that can be used later in the workforce, and a place where a type of unification occurs – no matter your origin, you are a solider like anyone else. Americans can’t, essentially, understand the role the military plays in Israeli life, because it just doesn’t appear in Americans’ life as often. Israelis use the army as a networking resource, a place to meet other friends or a potential mate; oftentimes roles in the military will determine much of a person’s adult life. In America, this just isn’t the case. Oftentimes, the prevalence of a military experience in Israeli life leads Americans to view Israelis as a violent people, and this has grander ramifications on American-Israeli relations.

Finally, Israeli secularism is completely different to American religious life, or secularism. For Jewish Israelis, being Jewish is a given. Most of the people they interact with on a daily basis are Jewish. But for Americans, Judaism and Jewish culture is a mechanism that must be activated, perhaps by lighting candles on Shabbat or going to synagogue. Even the most secular Jewish Americans send their children to Sunday school or youth groups. But secular Israelis do not practice these rituals, and for Jewish Americans this can seem like an echo of Judaism than the real deal.

Understanding these differences is important, as American Jews and Israelis are two communities that are intimately intertwined. But numerous attempts to galvanize American Jewish communities in support of Israel have failed. Sometimes, these failures are a misunderstanding of how Americans relate to Israelis and Israeli cultures. At the same time, Americans need to understand that they don’t live in Israel, and the Jewish state remains a foreign country to them.

But Israeli culture should be different to American culture, and it is up to Jewish Israelis and Americans to seek a deeper understanding of each other in order to mend the rifts that currently separate them.


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By Yael Miller / Jewish World blogger
Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.