Israeli Society in Five Sentences or Less

Tomorrow evening, Israel will celebrate its 62nd birthday. In honor of the occasion, we set to explore five Israeli figures of speech that encapsulate the country's character -- a unique mix of good humor, grief, paranoia, and almost nonsensical optimism. 

Israel's existence is full of contradictions: the world's only Jewish state nestled between dozens of Muslim countries; the region's only Western-style democracy situated on the border between Asia and Africa's land-masses; the official home of a single nation - made of immigrants from across the globe - mixed with several other non-Jewish minorities; a world-leader in scientific research and private entrepreneurship combined with a Middle-eastern attitude of "no worries" and cutting corners; a safe haven for Jewish refugees which is itself constantly under attack (and often on the offensive as well); etc. etc.

One of the ways in which Israeli society copes with these contradictions is through creative use of language: Israelis maintain their sanity by addressing controversial or painful issues with delicate, nuanced expressions which often mean exactly the opposite of what they seem to say. Below are a few of our favorites: 

1. "The patient is joking with his doctors" [Hebrew: מתלוצץ עם רופאיו]: Commonly used in electronic media reports to describe the medical condition of wounded soldiers or high-level government officials. This short sentence includes several key features: the image of the ideal Israeli warrior, always cool and in good spirits; the image of the Israeli doctor, who, under stressful conditions, is in control of the situation and can afford to exchange jokes with his patients; and, most importantly, the idea of delivering a short message about matters of life and death that leaves the listener without any idea of the actual state of affairs. After all, the report could have provided specific information about the said medical condition, but instead it only refers to the general mood and draws on popular imagery. 

The most famous example of this expression comes from the sad story of Ariel Sharon, one of Israel's most admired military and political leaders. Sharon, then Prime Minister of Israel, suffered a series of strokes between December 2005 January 2006. The media reported that Sharon, the ultimate Israeli hero, is "joking with his doctors". He has been in a coma ever since. 

2. "The families were notified" [Hebrew: הודעה נמסרה למשפחות]: Used in electronic media reports of military casualties, often coupled with an ambiguous description of the severity of the situation. The sentence combines two characteristics of Israeli life.

First is the local media's inability to report deaths of military men before getting official approval. And so, the ambiguous description, using the word "hurt" (נפגעים) instead of the more specific "wounded" (פצועים) usually means that some or all of the soldiers involved are in fact dead. This is due to the noble Israeli procedure of notifying the families of casualties in person by paying them a visit. The person delivering the news is usually the soldier's commanding officer or a common friend. Until such notice is delivered, the media is not allowed to report the death, lest the family hears about it indirectly.

Second, and more interesting, is that in a country as small as Israel, at any given moment, practically each and every person has a relative, close friend, or neighbor in active military service. And so, it is critical for the report to mention that "the families were notified". The actual news value in this is not that the families of the dead soldiers were notified, but the fact that your family was not notified: If you did not hear anything by now, it means your loved ones are safe. 

3. "No special incidents were recorded" [Hebrew: לא נרשמו אירועים חריגים]: Commonly used in news reports about large public events. In a country surrounded by enemies and populated with sometimes hostile political and religious groups, the probability of a public event becoming a mass-casualty event is relatively high. And so, while "overheated" events are a fact of life, the public interest is aroused when events simply go peacefully and according to plan. In Israel's intense environment, the fact that nothing happened is important news. 

A common example: "3,000 Muslim attended Ramadan prayers in Jerusalem's Temple Mount. No special incidents were recorded."

4. "Here are the news, by order of importance..." [Hebrew: הרי החדשות ועיקרן תחילה]: Israel is probably the only country on earth where radio stations include news reports in regular intervals of 60 minutes, 24 hours a day, often with breaking news updates every 30 minutes. In order to remain calm, the Israeli public needs to be constantly reassured that "no special events were recorded" and if any were recorded, then at least "the families were already notified" and we can all go back to our business. 

In a country where news reports are so frequent, it is important to manage one's time efficiently in order to live a little between all the dramatic events. And so, while many listen to the news almost every hour, they only listen to the first few seconds. In many countries news items are delivered by order of importance, but in Israel this is an "iron rule" and the announcer reassures his listeners at the beginning of each report that they are not missing out on any dramatic announcement if they stop listening after a few seconds. 

The sentence exemplifies a key feature of Israeli civil society: If no one was killed, then the rest of the news is not important. And so, social, cultural, environmental and all other news items receive relatively limited public attention. 

5. "I wished the soldier good luck" [Hebrew: איחלתי לחייל בהצלחה ]: A greeting used in protocols of military meetings between an individual soldier and a commanding officer. Unlike all the expressions we looked at so far, this one is not used anywhere other than in such protocols.

This expression is amusing as it encapsulates the dogmatism and opacity of the Israeli (and any) army, and the absurdity of many of the interactions between Israeli civilians in compulsory military service and professional officers who chose to build a career in the army: The greeting is standard and is always used to summarize such meetings, even if the officer did not wish the soldier good luck. In fact, even if the soldier was demoted, transfered, or sentenced to solitary confinement, the official summary will always state that the commander "wished him good luck".


This was a short overview of Israeli society in five sentences. Happy Independence Day and I wish the soldier good luck! 


(The above photograph, by the way, was taken on a tourist promenade in Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city, showing two female Jewish soldiers relaxing without their shoes on, an old muslim man looking at the Mediterranean Sea, and the historical port city of Jaffa in the background, complete with cranes - busy with construction of high-end apartment towers)
Note: The views and observations expressed on this web site are published for the sake of public discussion and do not represent my personal opinion or the opinion of my companies, clients, and/or employers. If you would like to get my opinion on anything, ask me.

This page contains a single entry by Dror Poleg published on April 18, 2010 11:02 PM.

Iceland's Volcanic Cloud: Europe's Black Swan? was the previous entry in this blog.

Uncertainty and Growth: What (else) is Wrong with America is the next entry in this blog.

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