Saturday 31 October 2009

Where to Draw the Line

I read an article entitled "Democracy check" written by Naomi Chazan and published in The Jerusalem Post magazine this weekend . In her article, Ms Chazan argues that the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 14 years ago came as a result of a lack boundaries in Israeli democracy and society. She claims that increasingly threatening, aggressive and violent behaviour patterns have become commonplace and acceptable in Israeli society as a tool for people to get what they want.

While reading her article, I began to realise how correct she is. There are so many elements of Israeli society that are affected by this issue of lack of boundaries that Ms Chazan discusses. Even though she raises only negative aspects to this phenomenon, I have also identified one or two positives that arise from it.

The most basic and common behaviour that reflects lack of boundaries is the lack of personal space in Israel. Whether you are standing in line for the post office or withdrawing cash from an ATM machine, you can be sure to have somebody standing right on top of you. It also manifests itself when strangers look through your shopping trolley in the supermarket to ask your opinion regarding items that are there. Many even ask whether you should be eating something with so many calories. There are those who object to this sort of behaviour as being too intrusive and not respecting privacy and private space. These are usually new immigrants to Israel who find this type of intrusion totally unacceptable. Some immigrants find this behaviour endearing in the sense that it shows a caring and warm side of the Israeli culture. Even though people may be insulting you, they are doing it because they want to show that they care. People born and bred in Israel seem to find this completely normal and they know no different.

Israel is regarded as a place where laws, rules and prescribed methods of behaviour are all open to negotiation. This usually means that timid or polite people are considered "freiers" (the Hebrew word for suckers) and are the ones who wait in line patiently whilst more aggressive, persistent and convincing people seem to get away with pushing their way to the front of the line. These aggressive people are also the ones who get their own way in all other aspects of life, be it in business, when driving on the roads or other daily activities. It is unfortunate that this gives rise to the Israeli notion that the way to get anything done in this country is to "tip the table over". This literally means going along to the person who you wish to convince or who you require some service from, and remonstrate with them to the point of tipping their desk over until you get what you want. Usually, it works. This means that, the next time you wish to get a bank or government clerk to do something that may not be quite part of what they are allowed to do, you do what you know works best which is adopting bullying tactics. This notion clearly promotes aggressive and even violent actions, and breaks down the boundaries of reasonable and acceptable behaviour. This is handed down to the next generation when children witness parents and teachers getting their own way by bullying others.

The "lack of boundary" behaviour is clearly evident amongst our politicians. The lack of respect afforded by members of Knesset to each other, even on the floor of the Knesset, is a shocking example to Israeli adults and children. If this is the way that the society's leaders behave, what hope is there for future generations growing up in Israel who witness this unacceptable behaviour?

Despite the negative and often shameful behaviours that are seen in Israel, I am equally convinced that Israel would not be experiencing some of the successes that it enjoys if the boundaries were adhered to. A good example is the Israeli hi-tech industry which has developed and successfully sold some significant firsts. For example, the voicemail that most of us have on our mobile and fixed line phones was first thought of and developed in Israel. Similarly, an Israeli company was the first to produce a firewall to prevent unauthorised accesses to our private networks at home and at the office. It is no accident that companies like Intel and Microsoft have significant development labs in Israel. The fact that Israeli scientists and engineers refuse to be limited by restrictions that are regarded by others as insurmountable means that Israelis are producing new and improved products and technologies that would not be developed elsewhere. The lack of boundaries in society promotes free thinking and creativity in business and technology with astonishing results.

As is usual with such things, the real answer often lies between the extremes. In this case, it would be fantastic if we could ensure that boundaries are adhered to in our daily behaviour, whilst ignoring them in scientific or engineering developments. Inevitably, this is difficult to achieve.

Ms Chazan concludes that the lack of boundaries threatens Israeli democracy. There may be some element of truth in her contention. I find people who behave this way in everyday life to be intolerable. We cannot ignore, however, the contribution that this behaviour style has made to the building and successes of the State of Israel. Even though many of us find this attitude difficult to live with, it seems somehow to be an integral part of the culture of modern-day Israel. It will not change any time soon, so I am forced to focus on the positive elements of which they are many.

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