Israelis, Ice Cream and Apologies

I recent trip to Israel and encounter with Israelis left me with very mixed emotions. On the one hand I experienced, as I always do when visiting Israel, all of the positive aspects associated with Israelis; their energy, dynamism, optimism and sheer celebration of life. On the other hand I encountered some of their less pleasant attributes such as their  rudeness and insensitivity.

Let me share two vignettes to illustrate.

We were in Jerusalem on one of the hottest days of the year. We stopped at the Malcha pedestrian mall to buy some ice cream. My wife found a long strand of hair embedded in her ice cream and brought it to the attention of the shopkeeper. Please pause for a moment and indulge me with the following thought experiment: imagine the same thing occurred at an ice cream shop in New York or London. How do you think the proprietor would react? Exactly. He would thank you for pointing it out and then apologize profusely. It goes without saying that he would refund you for the cost of the ice cream and express the wish that you would continue to patronize his shop again. Well that is not what happened to my wife in Jerusalem. The owner actually accused her of implanting her own hair into the ice cream so as to get a refund. He even ‘proved’ this to her by demonstrating that while his hair was short hers was long. The only logical conclusion was that the long offending hair was her own.

Later that day we took a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. We stood for about a half hour in a queue at the central bus station (the tachana ha-merkazit.) just as we neared the end of the line a middle-aged women conversing loudly on her mobile phone pushed in front of us and worked her way to the front. When I pointed out that we had been waiting patiently for close to a half hour she began to shriek at me saying that she suffered from hypertension and that she was an ill woman who couldn’t stand in line for that long. I responded by saying that all she had to do was politely tell me that before pushing in front and I would have gladly let her through. She had no answer to this and continued to shout and bellow about how ill she was and how insensitive I was.

Reflecting on these two experiences while sitting on the overheated bus to Tel Aviv it occurred to me that Israelis have a profound difficulty with making apologies.  Whereas in Western culture an apology is a sign of maturity and strength Israelis can’t help thinking of it as a sign of weakness and therefore something to be avoided at all costs. It is not just ice cream retailers and impatient overheated travellers who have difficulty mustering the word sorry; it is also politicians and national leaders who believe that if only they argue their point long enough and loudly enough it will resonate with listeners irrespective of the merits or legitimacy of their argument . This is one of the failures of the hasbarah campaign; it concedes no ground to the other side regardless of how in the wrong Israel might be on a particular issue. This can be infuriating for those on the other side and that is why in the long run such an attitude has proved counterproductive. It is not just Israelis who have difficulty apologizing, Diaspora Jews display the same tendency when they label a self-hating Jew any member of the community who criticizes Israeli government policy.

In fairness to Israelis it is understandable where this attitude comes from. They live in a very hostile region where one cannot afford to display the slightest sign of weakness lest it be exploited by an enemy. Yet a genuine apology does not a weakling make. On the contrary, apologizing when you are clearly in the wrong is not only a sign of strength and confidence it is also the surest way to disarm your opponent. It is also a good way of ensuring customers continue to patronise your shop even after discovering hair  in their ice cream