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Prickly sabras are proud to be rude
By Ed O'Loughlin

January 3, 2004 Scientists say the modern land of Israel is the
only place where early Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans
are known to have lived at the same time. Did they rub along
together, or did they fight? No one knows, but it is worth
noting that the Neanderthals are no longer with us.

It is perhaps from this primal clash of cultures that Israelis get
one of their most striking characteristics: a sense of manners
and etiquette which, at first acquaintance, has the charm and
subtlety of being clubbed in the face with a rhino bone.

When it comes to scowling immigration officials, rapacious
taxi drivers, surly shop assistants, public hissy fits and the
jumping of bus queues Israelis are the first to admit (some
even boast) that they play in a league of their own.

"We don't have any manners," said David Euolo, a Jerusalem
taxi driver and proud sabra (prickly pear, or Israeli-born Jew).
"When we see a line we push to the front. You're talking with
someone and they interrupt you all the time. You can say it's
part of the pressure of life in the Middle East - the economic
situation too.

" Someone who gets up to go to work in the morning doesn't
feel like he's going to work; he feels like he's going to war."

Tami Lancut Leibovitz, a rare fourth-generation Israeli, says:
"The style of communication is very aggressive. They can ask
you how old you are, how much do you earn, where did you
buy this, what did you pay for it, are you married, why did
you divorce?

"This country is only 55 years old. We are just a young country,
and we have to build a culture. In the beginning everybody came
from somewhere else, and they had very good manners, and they
threw them away. It was a fashion here to be without manners."

In the place of cold European formality or warm North American
courtesy, Israelis substitute what they call chutzpah, a Yiddish
word defined by Chambers Dictionary as "effrontery or nerve".
Pop sociology has it that Israelis developed chutzpah as a deliberate
reaction to the traditional courtesy of diaspora Jews, regarded as
servile by the macho pioneers of Zionism. The trait was then honed
by compulsory military service for males and females alike.

It probably helps that Israelis do not drink much or have a culture
of social violence. Chutzpah is like eating lots of garlic: it is not
a problem if everybody else does it too.

"Here you can shout at someone and nothing will happen," says
David Euolo, a former paratrooper. "You can speak your mind
and there's an allowance for that. If you use words only, you
don't use your hands; there will never be violence."

The trouble comes when prickly sabras rub up against foreigners.
As the world shrinks and business globalises, bridging this cultural
divide has become a growth industry in Israel. Many business and
language courses now incorporate training on how to be nice to
Gentiles, but the leader in the field is Ms Leibovitz, whose Israeli
Institute for Etiquette and Manners has roots stretching back over
20 years.

There is a popular theory that Israel's bluntness stems in part
from a strong sense of community: like children in the same
family they feel little need to be mannerly to each other. Ms
Leibovitz agrees. "[Israelis] slap people on the shoulder and it
makes foreign people crazy. It's something we like to do but
we don't understand it's wrong."

Her school aims to make Israelis aware of such non-verbal
messages, as well as more obvious problems. "In communication
they ask very intimate questions, and because they are in hurry all
the time . . . their listening skills are missing. They've no patience
to listen to what you want to say. Either they speak too much or
they don't listen."