While we’re on the subject of Israeli-American behavioral stereotypes as parsed on the New York Times op-ed page, what about David Brooks’ “A Loud and Promised Land”, of April 16? (Brooks was discourteous enough to publish this the day after Pesach, when we were all exhausted from lugging boxes of dishes down to the storeroom—who could write then?)
Brooks has some witty things to say about the volume and nosiness of quotidian Israeli discourse:
One Israeli acquaintance recounts the time he was depositing money into his savings account and everybody else behind him in line got into an argument about whether he should really be putting his money somewhere else. Another friend tells of the time he called directory assistance to get a phone number for a restaurant. The operator responded, “You don’t want to eat there,” and proceeded to give him the numbers of some other restaurants she thought were better.
Wasn’t it an Israeli Jew who wrote the homily about the mote in one’s eye? My wife, a native Israeli, never ceases to be amazed at how loud and indiscreet Americans can be in public places.
It’s true that a polite American, even a teenager, would not ask you the sum of your last paycheck in a grocery store line. That’s a personal matter, for Americans. But of course it all depends on what you call personal.
“I was on the bus today and some American students were talking very loudly about their menstrual periods.” That’s one I hear from Ilana about once a month. “I was downtown and this American man was in the middle of the street talking on his cell phone about his psychiatric medications (specifically, I overheard him mention buying modafinil online if he wasn’t able to get them today).” That one comes up less often, but perhaps only because we so seldom get downtown.
In America, apparently, income does not fall under the freedom of information act, where as menses and meds do. Conclusion: the difference between the American and Israeli national characters is not volubility. It’s what you volube about.
Brooks calls Israeli culture “argumentative.” Israelis certainly love to argue. Americans don’t, of course, unless it’s about the size of government and abortion. If you bring one of those subjects up, you are likely to find yourself, at best, subject to a long harangue and, at worst, in the middle of a street fight.
But just try getting an argument started in Israel by suggesting that “the government should get out of our lives.” You’ll get a blank stare. Out of our lives? Are you crazy? Who’ll take care of us if not the government? Or by suggesting that abortion should be banned. Not that God-fearing Israelis sanction abortion on demand, but it’s not, as it is in the U.S., a defining issue with deep roots in political and cultural identity.
At the end of his column, Brooks sighs and accepts that, for the foreseeable future, “Israelis will keep up their insufferable and necessary barrage of self-assertion.” Sigh. So will Americans. We’ll just keep self-asserting about different things.