Many people from abroad react with genuine surprise and bemusement when they hear that their friend is visiting Israel. “Why are you going there? Isn’t it just a dangerous war zone?” they ask. Well, they can be forgiven for thinking this, seeing as most people’s knowledge of Israel is limited to what they see on the news. The truth is that in Israel, as in any country, day-to-day life continues, whether tensions are high or not. Most of the time, the situation is quiet (in terms of violence, that is – Israel is never quiet in a literal sense), and Israelis live and love and party like any other nation. Many Israelis scoff at this stereotype, and hold the belief that their country is far more secure than the terrorism-plagued cities of Europe.
Israelis are certainly to-the-point. However, most of the time this is not down to rudeness at all – it’s because of the language they speak. Indeed, Hebrew is characterized by its brevity. Whereas an English speaker might say, “Please may I get a cappuccino?” an Israeli would say “efshar cappuccino”? (literally “it’s possible, cappuccino?”) Politeness in Hebrew tends to come through intonation rather than words such as please and thank you. An English speaker might say ‘No thank you’ in response to being offered tea, while it would be perfectly acceptable in Israel to simply say ‘no’. Israelis also believe that an excessive use of polite words displays a lack of closeness to the other person. It makes sense!
Israelis may often have a prickly demeanor, but this is simply their exterior and a reflection of the Israeli mentality. In fact, native-born Israelis proudly label themselves sabres, an Israeli cactus fruit that is thorny on the outside but sweet in the middle. Once you get through the outer layer, they are some of the warmest and most altruistic people you’ll meet.
There is a negative stereotype of Israel, and other Middle Eastern countries, as being barren deserts lacking sophistication, in which people ride around on camels. Anyone who has ever visited Israel will know this to be a wildly false stereotype. Israel boasts a world class and cosmopolitan culinary scene, a vibrant nightlife, and a remarkable culture of innovation. In fact, Israel is second only to Silicon Valley for its concentration of high-tech companies and startups.
Wrong! Israel is an incredibly diverse and multicultural nation. A common and profound misunderstanding about Jews is that they are all white. However, Jews come in no one shape, colour or size. In Israel the majority of the Jewish population are Mizrachim (Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent). Their ancestors fled to Israel in their hundreds of thousands from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Morocco, and Libya following the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. There are also over 130,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, first brought to the country in a series of covert and dangerous rescue missions during the 1980s and ’90s. In short, Israel’s Jewish population consists of immigrants from all over the world. Moreover, 20 per cent of the population is Arab (Muslims and Christians), with other ethnic minorities including Circassians and Bedouins.
It is true that Orthodox Judaism holds an institutionalized influence over various aspects of Israeli life, a result of an early compromise by the socialist founding Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. However, despite its significant tussle with religious elements, secularism and liberalism dominate in Israel. For instance, Tel Aviv hosts the Middle East’s biggest gay pride festival, the government is a firm backer of Israel’s medical cannabis industry (and just decriminalized recreational use), and pork dishes can be found throughout Tel Aviv and even Jerusalem.
Many outsiders hold this preconception, but the truth is very different. Of course, after decades of violent conflict, deep-rooted suspicions and downright hatred exist on both sides. However, for the most part, Jewish Israelis want to live in peace alongside their Arab-Israeli neighbours, whom they commonly refer to as ‘bnei dodim’ – cousins. All over the country, Arabs and Jews mix and live alongside each other, and small acts of coexistence happen every day without anyone blinking an eye.