Who is Israel? How the National Character of Israeli Shapes our World

by Alon Gratch

War, Peace and other Cycles of Change

Perhaps the best metaphor for change and how Israelis are affected by it was provided by the second Palestinian intifada (2000–2005), during certain periods of which suicide bombings took place almost daily deep inside Israel’s population centers. In a typical sequence of events, a Palestinian bomber would detonate himself in a crowded Israeli café, shopping mall, or market; blood and pieces of human flash would splash across tables, clothing racks, or trees; emergency police and medical teams would arrive to evacuate the injured and dead; media vans with television cameras and journalists would appear; special, religious SWAT teams would collect body parts and tissue residues; cleaning crews would wash floors, walls, and furniture; and in a short time, sometimes within a day or two, the establishment would open its doors for business as usual as if nothing had ever happened.

The Israeli Mind; Who is Israel?

An Israeli Border Policeman and a Palestinian scream at each other face to face in the Old City of Jerusalem October 13, 2000 as the Palestinian is refused entry to the al-Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers. Israeli security forces prevented thousands of Palestinians from attending Friday prayers over concern for continued unrest. Image is in the public domain via al-monitor

Amplified, this dramatic sequence of change from ordinary, if boisterous, street life to terror, destruction, and death, and back again, is the story of war and peace in Israeli and Zionist history. The sense of today’s Tel Aviv— vibrant, sophisticated, sensual, cultured, and securely self- indulgent, indeed, one of the top beach-city tourist destinations in the world—is vastly different from that of the frightening days of that last intifada, when hotels were deserted, their elevators shut down, and their walls covered with rust. Today’s buoyant mood was nowhere to be seen amid the then omnipresent feelings of dread and despair.

Of course, this was only one chain in the cycle of war and peace that has settled upon the Holy Land since the early decades of the twentieth century. Starting in the 1920s, with almost predictable intervals averaging in the single digits in number of years, a major, violent conflict erupted. Some wars dramatically changed the country’s size and borders. Some exposed the average Israeli to whole new populations and cultures. Some ushered in an era of self-confidence and euphoria; others announced a time of self-doubt and annihilation anxiety. Some defined young Israeli soldiers as selfless, genuine heroes; others cast them as the oppressors of women and children. Some wars resulted in unity, others in division. Some were only seen on television; others exploded deep in the midst of civilian life. Some triggered political change; others entrenched incumbent powers. Likewise, each period of stability or peace brought its own change. Some saw the loss of land, others the expansion of settlements. Some triggered religious revivals; others allowed for the rise of secular liberalism. Some led to dramatic economic expansion, others to increased international isolation, economic stagnation, and social unrest. Some such periods were accompanied by negotiations, others by the pursuit of unilateralism. Some rekindled feelings of hope and held up the possibility of genuine reconciliation; others proved illusory, merely increasing mistrust of Arabs or the world at large.

Who is Israel

Map of Palestine Land ownership by sub-district (1945) originally published in the Village Statistics, 1945. Image is in the public domain via wikipedia.com

A similar cycle of change has characterized the Zionist enterprise from the start in terms of population. The pre-Zionist immigrants to Palestine were mostly disciples of European rabbis and persecuted Jews motivated largely by religious zeal and messianic ideas. The Zionist immigration waves that started at the end of the nineteenth century consisted mostly of fiercely secularist Jews, many influenced by the socialist vision, who sought to work the land and establish agricultural communities. While each of these waves had a unique signature— one dominated by German professionals, others by able-bodied Russians who founded various paramilitary units— these were still mostly European Jews. But in the first few years after the declaration of independence, when the Israeli population more than doubled, a majority of the new immigrants were Sephardic Jews from Arab and North African countries. Most of these were poor, many were uneducated, and a large number had been persecuted and forced to leave their homelands. Once in Israel, most had to live in tent cities for years, integrating slowly into Israeli society. Subsequent immigration waves were from North America, Ethiopia, South Africa, and France. These were much smaller but were nevertheless significant in altering the human landscape in many parts of Israel. Most recently, as noted earlier, was the huge Russian immigration of the 1990s.

The cycles of arrival and absorption of such diverse groups of immigrants repeatedly exposed both the previous and new immigrants to foreign cultures, languages, lifestyles, and values. Other equally dramatic population shift s over the years were caused by border changes and variable birth rates. The percentages of Arab Israelis and orthodox Jews within the population have significantly increased. Israel’s largest city, Jerusalem, for example, used to have a large, secular Jewish majority. At present, only about 40 percent of the population consider themselves secular Jews, 35 percent are Arabs, and over 20 percent are religious, mostly ultra-orthodox Jews.

Who is Israel?

Hundreds of Ultra orthodox Jewish clash with Israeli police during a protest in Jerusalem on April 10, 2014, following the arrest of a haredi draft-dodger and against a bill intended to enforce the haredi enlistment into the IDF (Israel Defense Force). Image is in the public domain via TheTimesofIsrael.com

In Jerusalem and elsewhere, not only the human landscape has changed so radically. As Amnon Niv, a Jerusalem city engineer in the 1990s attests, starting in the early 1970s, in one generation Jerusalem underwent the kind of architectural and physical transformation that takes most cities decades or even centuries to achieve. And the pace of building and development in many parts of the country continues unabated. Other important changes taking place in a few short decades included the revival of biblical Hebrew and the transformation of a quasi- socialist, collectivist society into an individualistic, American- style, free- market economy. Last but not least, a tiny, poor, and existentially threatened country quickly became an economic and military regional power with the capacity to destroy its enemies at will.

So who is Israel and what happens when you grow up with, live in, or immigrate to a world of constant, dramatic change? On the positive side, you become an expert in adapting to, and creating, change. You learn how to learn new skills, how to navigate new rules, how to deal with people very different from yourself, how to improvise, how to manage uncertainty, how to start a new lifestyle, if not a new life. You understand that conventions, organizations, and landscapes are temporal. You become aware of your cognitive and emotional reactions to such extreme conditions as threat and vulnerability, and also triumph and power. In this respect, being an Israeli is like going through interminable basic training for the global information age, which is all about making change your friend. This is one of the reasons that every other young Israeli you meet in New York City is an aspiring, accomplished, or failing entrepreneur. It’s one of the reasons that a country whose population size ranks 101st in the world has produced about 125 companies, almost all high-tech, that trade on the New York stock exchange. That’s more than any other country in the world except the United States and Canada.

But all this agility has a downside. Israelis don’t particularly value general norms of conduct. They have a basic disrespect for plans, rules, and procedures, which means the existing order cannot be taken for granted. Israeli history can count on one hand the number of prime ministers who completed a full term in office. Each new wave of immigration brings to the country a large group of displaced, shell- shocked individuals who for a long time try to decipher the erratic rules of a new land that often greets them with suspicion. The natives, recent immigrants themselves, oft en don’t know whether to admire or pity the new arrivals, and how to relate to their culture and traditions. Similarly, each new wave of construction in the West Bank is met inside Israel proper with doubt and ambivalence: Are these the true heirs of our Zionist heroes of yesteryear or a band of lunatics, fanatics? And, of course, questions of basic identity are inner-, not outer-bound. Are we a David or a Goliath? A small, powerless people struggling to outsmart the hostile powers surrounding us or a nation of aggressive warriors subjugating our helpless neighbors? Is this our permanent and only homeland, the one place where Jews can feel safe from persecution, or merely another brief and unsustainable episode of Jewish sovereignty? In other words, the negative flip side of adaptability is emotional and cognitive instability.


Dr. Alon Gratch is an Israeli-born, New York-based clinical psychologist, organizational consultant, and author. He is the author of The Israeli Mind: How the National Character of Israeli Shapes our World has been on the faculty of Columbia University and worked with clients such as Pepsi, Chase Manhattan Bank, Nikko Hotels International, and the NFL. Dr. Gratch is the author of two previous books, the international bestseller If Men Could Talk, which was translated into 25 languages, and If Love Could Think. He has written for both academic and popular publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

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