Wednesday 15 October 2008

Some Parts of the World are Flat

The Jewish festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) has arrived and, with it, the tradition of building a Sukka. A Sukka is a temporary dwelling that is constructed outside of the usual home, and is required to have a roof made of branches to reinforce its temporary nature. Jews are expected to undertake as many of their usual daily activities as possible in the Sukka over the week-long holiday, and it is from my Sukka that I am currently writing this blog (fortunately my wifi network extends to my Sukka). There are numerous symbolisms that are associated with this temporary dwelling, but suffice it to say that is a fun time of year in Israel with better weather conditions and increased interactions with friends and neighbours due to be being outdoors.

I was struck by an advert which I saw in the local newspaper last week. It appeared in all the local newspapers, Hebrew and English, as it does every year at this time. The advert was in the form of an invitation and requested the company of the citizens of Israel in the Sukka of the President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres. The invitation stated that all citizens are invited to the President's Sukka, and provided details of the day and time that the public are invited to attend. Parking details were advertised along with the statement that one should bring an ID document or passport to secure entrance to the President's residence. Certain security details were also published.

During the course of reading this invitation, I wondered to myself how many other countries in the world would invite its residents to the home of the President. I suspect not many. I was also struck by how unsurprised the citizens of Israel are to see such an invitation. For the average Israeli, it is the most natural thing in the world to be invited to visit the Sukka of a friend or neighbour. I have heard it said that the President whilst being in an important position, is after all only human. So why should one not be invited to visit his Sukka as well?

This line of thinking fits well into Israel culture. Israel is a very flat society without any of the airs and graces that are common practice in other countries. It is a country where it is not out of place to call anybody and everybody by their first names, no matter who they are and who you are. Teachers in the schools are known to all students by their first names, even in the kindergartens and primary schools. Adults do not feel disrespected when a kindergarten child calls them by their first name on their first meeting. This is also true when adults meet others who may be in a position of seniority e.g. Prime Minister or President. Although it is acceptable to address the Prime Minister as Prime Minister of something similar, it is equally acceptable and usual to call him or her by their first name.

When a child addresses an adult as Mr. or Mrs., it does automatically indicate a level of respect on the part of the child. It often, however, indicates a false type of "respect" as it is also possible for a child to disrespect an adult despite referring to him as Mr. It is my view that allowing children and adults alike to refer to each other by their first names removes a barrier between them which promotes a different type of relationship between them. Communications between the generations is difficult enough without creating further barriers. I believe that a child can respect an adult even whilst referring to him by his first name. As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Israel, where all people refer to each other by their first names, is one of the flattest societies I have come across. It is a society where the most simple and uneducated people would not feel out of place dining and associating with those from the upper echelons of society. I believe that this is most certainly facilitated, at least in part, by the equality created by using first names.

I feel sure that the kibbutz movement has also had some influence on this characteristic of Israeli society. Kibbutzim were established as collective farms, and operated strictly according to socialist ideals. This naturally creates a very flat society where all people are equal to each other. The kibbutz movement has proved to be a financial failure, and most kibbutzim have been forced to adopt certain capitalist practices in order to stay alive. There can, however, be little doubt that the egalitarian principles, upon which the kibbutzim were built, have permeated into Israeli cities and towns.

The natural attempts by some elements of Israeli society to set themselves apart from the rest have been largely ineffective, and it remains an extraordinarily flat society. This sets it apart from most countries around the world, and particularly from British and American societies that have clear class systems and hierarchies, each predicated upon a different base.

The invitation issued by the President to citizens to join him in his Sukka accentuates two concepts. The first is the flat Israeli society which does not blink twice when invited to the President's Sukka. The second is the festival of Sukkot, which serves to bring everybody to a similar level when constructing and living in their temporary dwelling for the week, and which encourages the inviting of guests into your Sukka. Whilst being accepted as an annual event of no extra significance beyond other annual events, for me it is an outstanding symbol of a special and positive quality of Israeli society.

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