In Nyaung Shwe, a tiny town in the middle of Myanmar, my native guide Chris is dropping jokes over pitchers of Mandalay beer. “Why does Israelis”—he’s already laughing—“Why do they have such big noses?” I beat him to the punch line: “Because air is free.” Amazement, then a laugh from my new friend. “So you hate them too?”
After backpacking around Southeast Asia, I know it’s not just Chris who has a problem with Israelis. In Thailand, at the Bella Bella Guesthouse, just one block from Bangkok’s tourist-thick Khao San Road, the management apologizes for not serving Israeli patrons. According to the sign taped to the front desk, “We have many problem with them.” Israelis’ reputation in North America isn’t much better. Ask anyone who’s spent time among Israelis—be it traveling, doing business, or, say, buying a digital camera at a Manhattan electronics shop—and they’ll tell you it’s common knowledge that Israelis are, well, shmucks.
Many American Jews will drop snarky asides about Israeli bad behavior, but tell them about the Southeast Asian hostels that prohibit Israelis and the mockery gives way to solidarity. Like me—a Catholic-raised Jersey boy—American Jews see “no Israelis” and think “no Jews.” But while for many people this anti-Israelism evokes the “restricted” hotels and country clubs of pre-WWII America, most Israelis couldn’t care less about it. In fact, many even seem to take a bit of good-spirited pride in their infamy.
The question, then, is this: Why are Israelis such dicks? And why doesn’t their bad reputation bother them?
I interviewed the Israelis I met in Southeast Asia. And when I got home, I spoke to anthropologists, sociologists, and shrinks. Five explanations stood out from all the others:
Explanation #1: Israeli tourists are colonial oppressors
Daria Maoz, a Ben Gurion University anthropologist who has studied Israelis traveling in India, argues that a hierarchical relationship between Israeli tourists and Asian hosts creates a neocolonial dynamic that angers the locals. Dayan says that the anti-Israeli sentiment on display in the hostels of the region is really just an expression of class resentment.
That dog won’t hunt. Israelis know they’re being singled out from among tourists of all other nationalities. Most of them also say that they’ve brought it on themselves with their greediness and rudeness.
Explanation #2: Israelis look Western but act like Arabs
According to Jonathan, a 33-year-old Jerusalem native I met in Cambodia, his compatriots suffer from a kind of cultural cognitive dissonance: “You must remember,” he explained, “we are not Europeans. We are Arabs.”
Asians, Jonathan posited, have come to expect a certain kind of behavior from Western tourists, behavior based on European customs. To them, Israelis look like Westerners but act like Arabs, and are therefore judged unjustly.
Yes, Israeli culture owes much to the Arabs. Think of how both groups incessantly cry “Jalla!” or the way they press their thumbs to their middle and index fingers to tell you to hold on a damn second. Still, Westerners from T.E. Lawrence to Bernard Lewis have agreed that Arab culture, with its effusive greetings and ritualistic hospitality, elevates graciousness to an art form.
There's no passing the buck to Arabs on this one.
Explanation #3: In Israel, etiquette is for the weak.
Today’s Israelis are socially clueless because the nation’s early settlers saw “little value in the codes of social etiquette.” According to Tami Lancut Leibovitz, the founder and president of the Israeli Institute for Etiquette and Manners, to understand Israeli rudeness one must understand doogri, which translates from Hebrew as “to tell you the truth.” Leibovitz claims that for early Zionists, “a certain ‘roughness’ and practicality of spirit came to be viewed as ideal personal traits.”
In Bangkok one night, I asked Martin, a 37-year-old manager of the travel agency in the Greenhouse, an Israeli-owned Bangkok hotel, if Leibovitz was onto something. He thought she was. “In Israel, talking softly means that you’re not feeling well, or that you’re weak.”
Explanation #4: No one wants to be a frayer.
The Hebrew word frayer is translated as “sucker” or “patsy.” For many Israelis, Jewish history is one long episode of collective frayer-hood—one trauma after the next in which the Jew plays history’s patsy.
That long episode of losing didn't end until the creation of the modern state of Israel—the ultimate embodiment of the guile to which many Israelis now aspire. “Israelis never want to come out of a situation being the loser, the sucker, regardless of the amount that is being haggled over,” says Martin. “As a result, sometimes they come across as being stingy.”
Explanation #5: Boot camp encourages bad manners.
For the Israeli military, as we all know, every encounter is an existential threat—or so goes the institutional logic, anyway. Lose once, and the gig is up. Because failure is simply not an option, doogri is a must. And since the military is the great solvent of Israeli society, the one place where Israelis of every background interact with one another, it makes sense that the ethos and culture of the IDF would influence Israeli society in general.
Putting it all together
Take the early Zionist environment Leibovitz described, the Middle Eastern milieu Jonathan mentioned, the frayer phenomenon Martin told me about, then season it all with the cultural influence of the Israeli military, and perhaps now we’ve stumbled upon the recipe that has produced the infamous Israeli jerk.
Suddenly, the rudeness and the frenetic need to “win” even the most mundane social encounter begin to make sense. But this still doesn’t explain why Israelis are so complacent about how they are perceived, at moments when American Jews acutely feel the historical sting of this new anti-Israeli-ism.
The answer may come from a New York University psychologist named David Aronson, who argues that minority groups such as Jews experience what Aronson calls “the stereotype threat.” Members of these groups regularly modify their behavior out of fear of confirming negative stereotypes. Aronson has published studies showing that black math students waste time repeatedly rechecking answers to simple questions for fear that a mistake will confirm a white teacher’s assumption that black people aren’t smart.
Aronson describes his own experience of the Jewish stereotype threat. A non-Jewish acquaintance once asked Aronson why Jews were so rich. An offended Aronson pointed out that he and his wife, both Jewish, were not rich. This conversation happened over lunch, and when the check came, Aronson found himself in a quandary. Should he pick up the tab? If he did, would he be playing into the stereotype of Jewish richness? But if he didn’t, wouldn’t it prove that he—“they”—were stingy?
Minorities, including American Jews, make small adjustments on a day-to-day basis in their interactions with members of the majority. So why don’t Israelis feel the pressure of the “stereotype threat”? Why aren’t they mortified by the increasingly popular stereotype of the pushy, money-grubbing Israeli? Why aren’t they enraged by the signs excluding them from tourist establishments?
The answer, ultimately, may lie in something Martin said to me. In an ostensibly minor choice of words, almost a slip of the tongue, as he spoke of Jewish history Martin distinguished Israelis from “the Jews.” Not other Jews. The Jews. That one-word distinction, which came so naturally to Martin, resonates with 60 years of Israeli history and 120 years of Zionist history.
In the 1911 article “Instead of Excessive Apology,” Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the revisionist Zionist movement, wrote: “We do not have to apologize for anything. We are a people as all other peoples; we do not have any intentions to be better than the rest. We do not have to account to anybody. We are what we are, we are good for ourselves, we will not change, nor do we want to.” Jabotinsky’s tough talk was less a reflection of the realities of his own day than a dream of how the Jew of the future might think and live. Only then would Jews escape the horrible circularity of their history, with its endless passage from settlement to pogrom to dispersion and around again. Only then would they be relieved of the pathologies of exile, the spiritual and psychological malaise that many Zionists saw as the greatest violence of Jewish history, more destructive than any pogrom.
Raised in their own land, speaking their own language, Israelis have freed themselves from the anxious self-monitoring still experienced by the Jews of the Diaspora. The Jews of Israel have learned to stop apologizing. Early Zionists would have taken great pleasure in knowing this day would arrive. Perhaps we should take some pleasure in it, too.