This morning Israel commemorated the holocaust with its annual minute of silence, accompanied by the haunting sound of the country's air raid sirens. I stood outside my Jerusalem apartment and watched cars pull over and drivers stand by open doors, buses stop, old ladies with shopping baskets stand with heads bowed and even the kindergarten teachers opposite my home made a valiant attempt to have their young charges stand quietly. The atmosphere was palpable: an entire country joining together in collective respect and even grief for the generation of European Jewry that was wiped out by Hitler & his Nazi followers.
The minute ended with the siren fading, and immediately normal life started up: car doors closed, children started to laugh & squeal and pedestrians walked on. I turned to go in to my apartment when the air was split with the raucous sound of car horns and angry shouts as two Israeli drivers engaged in the national pastime of driving badly, then loudly blaming the other driver for any near miss that may occur.
How can a nation bow its head in grief one moment and then have its citizens start berating each other the next? What happened to the feeling of unity and shared experience that had bound us all together moments before ? Perhaps the answer lies in a biblical name for the Jewish people, 'Bnei Yisrael', the Children of Israel. We are not simply 'Am Yisrael', the people of Israel, who by pure chance happen to be citizens of the same country, but we are also the descendants of a single family who lived in this area long ago, and in some ways after all these millennia we still are one large extended family and like most families, we are a little dysfunctional!
This explains a lot about some of the quirks of Israeli society: We have our disagreements, we irritate each other, and we often take the feelings of our fellow Israelis for granted, but we equally love to celebrate each others 'simchas' and share each others pain. We can stand and shed a tear together and then shout at each other a moment later, because like most families we care deeply about each other, but we don't always get on that well! This perhaps goes to explain other aspects of Israeli society like 'protexia', where who you know can open doors, perhaps unfairly, but after all, we'll all try to help out family... right?? The way we drive, always wanting to be in front even when there is nothing to be gained, is that any different to siblings who just have to beat each other to the most trivial things? The way we Israelis stick our nose into discussions and disputes that are none of our business, who doesn't have family members who do just that?
To the outsider then, Israeli society may often seem torn by divisions, and bad behaviour toward each other, but to those visitors I'd suggest you watch our shared grief when the memorial sirens blare; look at our shared concern and care for the young people we see as almost our own, as they give up years of their lives to serve our army, or observe the genuine joy every Israeli feels on hearing of an engagement or birth even concerning total strangers.
So next time you get yelled at by an Israeli driver who just cut you up, don't let it get to you, simply honk back and smile, after all who drives us more crazy than our own family?