Israel: The Mishpacha society

Israel is not really a society as such, and in fact is not really a country, as we ordinarily define that term. It is a mishpacha. That is really the only way to reconcile its quite diverse set of characteristics.

Howard Rotberg

OpEds Israelis enjoy the beaches of the Kinneret
Israelis enjoy the beaches of the Kinneret

I am a Canadian traditional Jew, and I love to spend time in Israel each year, mainly because there is no place in the world I’d rather be. So dear readers, do not be put off by my argument today that Israel is not a regular society – it is a mishpacha, family, a loving family, of course, but also a somewhat dysfunctional family, of course.

I am a writer and publisher on cultural and ideological matters, and I am fascinated by different cultures. My own family growing up contained two different cultures, both Jewish, but quite different: my mother had been born in the Southern Ontario small city where I grew up, and her manner was similar to the small town mannerisms of the WASP (white anglo-saxon Protestants) who were the majority. She was reserved, quiet, patient, kind, yet still identified primarily as a Jew. My father, on the other hand, was a Polish Jew from Lodz; he and two brothers survived Auschwitz, but their sister and parents did not. The two sides of the family were culturally distinct but Jewishly quite similar.

And so, when I look at a society I have trained myself to observe the cultural values, norms, modes of speech and actions, and inter-personal relationships.

In my first few trips to Israel, I could not quite reconcile what I saw – all the Israelis I knew (or am related to) appeared to be kind, caring, family-oriented people who will really put themselves out for friends and relatives, and even, when the occasion requires it, for complete strangers. Initially, back in my “tourist” days, I noticed how Israelis when asked for directions, would kindly spend 5 or 10 minutes explaining the complexity of directions in cities laid out in curves rather than a grid. Then, more seriously, during the Hezbollah War of 2006, I heard about all the families from the centre and the south of the family who aided families from the north who were fleeing rockets, and some even invited strangers to stay with them.

And yet, I also saw a group of people who could be (how can I say it?) quite rude and impatient. Everyone knows that the drivers are super-aggressive, impolitely cutting in front of you, honking their horns if you but slow down slightly to check where to turn, and in general they drive like they are in battle not on city streets.

Of course, we all know about the lack of patience of Israelis in line, the rude cutting in front of people, the presumption that by telling the last person in line that “I am behind you” gives one the right to go have a coffee somewhere and then re-enter the line behind that person (and in front of the 5 people who have entered the line in the meantime).

The more time I spend in Israel the more of this rude behaviour I see. Recently, I attended a conference at the Technion. The 40 or so participants were all accomplished, highly educated and individually nice people. We sat in a rectangular arrangement, while a prominent American gave a lecture. Being reasonably expert in the field, I can tell you that the speaker was first rate, and he delivered his information in a rapid fire, but interesting way, with illustrative slides and charts.

I am used to such an event in Canada, where the audience would listen with polite courtesy. Here, however, there were at any one time, three or four loud conversations going on between participants while I struggled to hear the guest speaker. I wondered how the speaker could concentrate with all the discussions, and even arguments, going on around him. Only later, did I find out that his wife is Israeli and he was surely warned ahead of time what he would be facing.

So, after a few years, I began to understand that Israel is not really a society as such, and in fact is not really a country, as we ordinarily define that term. It is a mishpacha. That is really the only way to reconcile its quite diverse set of characteristics.

In most families you have a loving concern by the parents for the children, and by the children for the parents, and mostly by siblings for each other. But if you could be present in a family when they are not on best behaviour for “company”, you would often see a bizarre set of characteristics, which look more like infighting than loving concern – parents yelling at children, children yelling at parents, and siblings treating each other like mortal enemies.

How does this work in practice in the Israeli mishpacha? For one thing, members of a family are always lecturing each other how to behave. Now take the all-too-common situation on Israeli roads, where a driver is going very slowly because he doesn’t know where he is going, or is talking on a cellphone or to his passenger, or is just not in the same degree of hurriedness in which everyone else is driving. The car behind, or a few cars behind will honk repeatedly and make all manner of curses and impolite hand motions. When finally the offending driver moves off to the side, you would think the aggrieved driver behind would be eager to pass and get on the way to the obviously important destination and the obviously time limited engagement at hand – but no, the driver pulls aside the now out-of-the-way vehicle, lowers the passenger side window, and proceeds to give the driver a five-minute lecture on proper driving habits, while he blocks the way for the other cars behind, who again are honking and the whole procedure repeats itself.

Nothing brings a mishpacha closer together than the kind of hatred and adversity that Israelis have had to suffer.
This is the way family members would behave, not strangers. Why the need to “educate” this stranger on driving habits, as you may never encounter him again? Perhaps when you regard him as a family member, you feel obliged to give him a dressing down so that this family member will not bring such shame upon the family in the future.

Of course, we are a Jewish family in Israel that is surrounded by nations and terrorist groups that want to kill all the members of the mishpacha; nothing brings a family closer together than the kind of hatred and adversity that Israelis have had to suffer.

And with all the criticism Israel gets from other countries, there are members of the family that have internalized the criticism. They seem to suffer from a Stockholm Syndrome where they begin to identify with the enemy and blame their parents, if you will, for all the bad things they have to face in life. We have all seen children like this – rebellious and blaming their poor parents for things beyond their control. Israel has its Neve Gordons and Avrum Burgs.

The lecture at the Technion was not regarded by the audience as the case of an eminent American authority, contributing his precious time to educate his Israeli peers; instead, it was regarded as a family dinner where, just because Father is speaking, it doesn’t mean the brothers can’t argue about what he is saying, or more likely, about the last football match or political machination.

Moreover, the members of the family who are treated within the family in a way that would never be acceptable in another setting, have become so used to the familial behaviour, they no longer even find it objectionable. After the lecture, I went up to the speaker to discuss a couple of matters of mutual interest, when an Israeli fellow, brushed me aside in mid-sentence to tell the speaker that because he was soon leaving, the speaker should really hear what he had to say, without giving me so much as a slicha (excuse me).

But these rude and aggressive people are my family. I know them; I know they are, in general, fine and moral people. But like others in my family, they are annoying and they don’t care if they are annoying because in a family we put up with annoying cousins or uncles.

In the Israeli mishpacha, our cousins come from all over; an Ashkenazi Jew like me, has been re-united with my cousins from Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Iran and even Ethiopia. To show them how much we love them, we shall treat them not as fellow citizens of a democracy, but as family members, and we hope they are grateful for that. We treat our family members so poorly, yet when one is sick or is suffering, we spare no action to show our concern and give our help.

And so, all the members of the army are the mishpacha of all Israelis. All suffer and mourn when any soldier is killed. When the helicopter went down in Romania, all those aboard were the children of all Israelis. And Gilad Shalit is the son of every Israeli; that is why so many marched for him, whether or not they agree politically that 1000 of the worst terrorists should be released to obtain his freedom. The fact that every soldier is a child of every family is the reason why Israel follows the unique policy of sacrificing security and other lives to take all reasonable measures to get every soldier home, or every dead body home.

That is why, when I walk the streets and I see the young families (unique in the western world where couples average less than 2 children, even secular families here usually have 3 or 4 children), I look at the little children and smile. Yes they are cute, yes, they are beautiful, but I smile because they are my family, too, my children too. They are the children that bear the neshamas perhaps of some of the 1.5 million children, including my then 8 year old aunt, that we lost in the Shoah.

And, like all families, we have relatives we just cannot stand. How about those haredi cousins who have no means of financial support but the father spends all his time studying the Torah and Talmud, while his wife spends all her time looking after the 8 kids while the rest of the family chips in for their support. We are not all happy about it, but as family we have to help, like it or not.

And what is more family-like than Israel’s proportional representation system of Knesset seats. A family is not a true democracy. Saba - grandfather- continues to have disproportionate influence. In Israel, proportional representation ensures that the senior politicians from each party, who head their “list” keep getting sent back to the Knesset. I can’t really envision Uncle Bibi being tossed aside even if he broke some minor laws. The only thing that changes is which senior family member will head the coalition.

And Saba Shimon Peres, who I think made lots of mistakes, had a job for life. In a political career spanning over 66 years. Peres was elected to the Knesset in November 1959 and, except for a three-month-long hiatus in early 2006, served continuously until 2007, when he became President. The family looks after Saba.

How about the rude cousins from America? Yes we love them, but it gets tiring that they threaten with breaking up the family if we do not do what they want at the Kotel and find a way to accept all kinds of conversions.  And if they weren’t our mishpacha, would we even care what happens to a group of people, like the American Jews, who voted 70% for the evil Obama?

Of course the Arabs are a tribal culture, with other divisions like Shiite versus Sunni, and everyone knows there is no such thing as an Arab world – they kill each other over minor disputes. Israelis of course hardly ever kill each other, preferring to yell and curse through an open car window at the errant member of the mishpacha. It’s sometimes nasty, sometimes not.

It may be the worst place on earth, except for everywhere else.

Howard Rotberg is the author of the novel about Israel during the Second Intifada, entitled The Second Catastrophe: A Novel about a Book and its Author., TOLERism: The Ideology Revealed. and his most recent, The Ideological Path to Submission... and what we can do about it.He is also President of Mantua Books (, Canada’s only conservative and pro-Israel publishing house. He practiced law for 20 years in Kitchener, and was then a real estate developer of affordable rental housing for low income working people in converted heritage buildings throughout Southern Ontario. He has just finished Brantford’s Artisans’ Village & Cultural District, a 238,000 square foot redevelopment of an old industrial complex.