Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shit Happens and It does Matter – Why Living is Israel is not like living in the United States

Visitors from Europe or North America travelling through Israel will see a remarkable number of similarities.  They will recognize many of the brands and stores.  They will read the signs in English.  People drive cars on the right (in both senses of the word) side of the road, albeit crazily.  Even social manners are reasonably similar, if a bit more expressive than Northern Europe.  All in all, Israel does not even feel like a completely foreign country.
At the same time, life here is different than that in the West.  Even after many years, it is hard to put your finger on the actual difference.  I have an unproved theory, a gut feeling (not always good, either):
Outside occasional deaths in the family and even more rare mass shooting events, most people in the United States and Europe are insulated from tragedy.  Most people don’t know anybody who actually has been shot and wounded, not to mention just shot at.  Most people don’t know someone who has served or is serving in an ongoing war.  Even 9/11, an iconic event, was more a symbolic blow to security than an actual personal loss for the vast majority of Americans.  I am not saying this is a bad thing.  It is a sign of a normal life.  However, one of its side effects is that the great American expression “Whoever has the most toys wins” becomes very dominant.  The goal of people becomes to collect things, big or small, according to budget and nature.  Keeping with the Joneses, Lees, Rodriguezes, and Ivanovs is an extremely popular game.  A person can make a success of a football (any type) team the focus of their life.  In other words, for the most part, there is the automatic routine of living and there is fun, quite simple really.
By contrast, in Israel, shit does happen and much too frequently.  The recent bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria was a not so gentle reminder of how frail life and happiness can be.  A person’s whole life can and does sometimes change in an instant.  Almost everybody in Israel has a family member or friend who is serving.  Almost everybody knows someone who has been wounded or killed in the line of duty.  Everybody naturally looks for unnatural behavior or objects, albeit in a calm, natural manner.  Israelis almost always stop talking for the first ten seconds of the omnipresent news broadcasts to be sure that nothing “important” has happened.  On a certain level, this constant worry is negative: tension, worry, and negative thinking.  On the other hand, it has certain positive effects in my opinion.  Life is lived more intensely here; every day is long and every week is short.  Also, people really actively value their families and friends since a whole world can be theoretically upturned at any time.  You cannot take the routine for granted.  Finally, the whole issue of having more toys is less dominant here because there are more important things, although competition is a part of human nature.
So, while you would think living in the historically unstable Middle East would ruin your life, it merely changes it and not necessarily for the worse.
I once met someone who had lived in Sarajevo.  I mentioned how dangerous that must have been.  His answer would be utterly understood by an Israeli: “No, the fighting took place in the block next to us, not where we lived.” Shit happens.  Cope with it.

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