[Here is some old material that remains pertinent. Three years ago my college alumni magazine produced a roundup of articles on how Americans are viewed in eight countries around the world. They asked me to write about Israel. -- J.M.H.]
“Don’t look at me like that,” a man’s voice rings out in American English. It resonates over the Hebrew buzz of a Tel Aviv shopping mall. “I’m not going to steal anything from you,” the American snaps at the manager of a newsstand that sells foreign magazines.
The newsstand manager replies in Israeli-accented English. “What’s the problem? Why must you talk this way? I didn’t say anything to you. We are brothers.” Brothers they may not be, but they are about the same age, in their late 20s or early 30s.
As people do in Israel, I butt in. I ask the American if he has been here long. He says he arrived only recently. He is on military duty. We talk for awhile. The American is black. I tell him he will find that people here don’t view skin color the way Americans do. He returns his attention to the magazine racks for a few minutes and then vanishes into the crowd.
“He thought you were staring at him,” I tell the shopkeeper, explaining that a white man staring at a black man in the United States might provoke some discomfort.
“In America, they’d think I’m white?” asks the magazine seller, whose olive skin marks him in Israel as of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern background — historically, a group that has suffered discrimination by fellow Jews of European origin. He tells me that he spent a couple of years in the States — in Seattle and California — and was not aware of racism. He was living there illegally and thought it best not to divulge his nationality. He told everyone he was Italian — which went over well with women, he adds. He loves America and would move there in a minute, he says, if he could get the immigration papers.
Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, friends and neighbors express various views of the United States and its people. Moshe, who owns a stationery store, says Americans are “freiers” — an evocative Israeli term of disapproval that is variously rendered as “suckers” or “pushovers” or “gullible victims.” Moshe explains: “They go to places where they don’t belong — Iraq, Afghanistan. They try to be the police force of the whole world. They should stay home and attend to their own problems.”
Hannah, a school administrator, finds fault with U.S. family life. Adult children move away and see their parents only once or twice a year, she says, and even college students leave home to study. Accustomed to a society where the generations are reunited every Sabbath, she sees the way Americans live as cold and fragmented.
Mazal, a beauty-shop operator and mother of a combat pilot, is impressed with the U.S. work ethic. Even the richest Americans insist that their children find jobs, she believes.
Some years ago an Israeli journalist wrote about U.S. supermarkets. What struck him was the impersonal way in which store clerks told him to have a nice day. Later, a book by a pair of cross-cultural consultants found that Israelis often see Americans as insincere, naive, superficial, too formal, lacking spontaneity, insistent on going by the book rather than improvising, and easily taken advantage of.
Mordechai, a jewelry designer who has visited 11 U.S. states, thinks differently. The first word that comes to mind when he is asked about Americans is “kind.” He adds that the Americans who visit his shop in Tel Aviv are not stingy the way French tourists are.
I tell Mordechai he is generalizing. “I know that,” he says, smiling.
--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv
(Cross-posted at ZioNation: Progressive Zionism and Israel Web Log)
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