- Do you want something to eat?
- How old are you?
- Are you single?
(For anyone who has not traveled to the Middle East, the answer to the first question is always “yes.”)
Everyone that I meet — from family members of friends to complete strangers — is seemingly obsessed with finding spouses for the Jewish singles among their friends and family members. At first, this mentality struck me as odd since I have spent the last eight years of my life in Boston, where people don’t even think about such serious topics until after they finish graduate school and start a career. But, over time, I have grown to appreciate the sentiment in Jewish religion and Jewish history.
Israelis, or at least the Mizrahim (Israeli Jews originally from other Middle Eastern countries) with whom I spend most of my time, are much more focused on the family. People live with their parents until they are married, and sometimes even afterwards. Americans, on the other hand, want to become independent as quickly as possible and do not think twice about moving far away from their hometowns for work or adventure. Israelis have large families, but the birth rate in the United States has been steadily declining. Israelis spend nearly every evening with family members, whereas most Americans see their extended family once or twice each year. I have yet to see a family where people actively dislike each other.
At one family gathering, I asked an American-Israeli woman who has moved back and forth between the two countries with her family about the questions I always receive. She said people are very interested in me because a nice, Jewish man is a rare commodity here. From what I’ve experienced in my travels, perhaps the first adjective — “nice” — is the most desirable, in certain respects, in Israel. Let me explain — it’s not something you’ll see on Jewish-Israel tours or vacations in Israel.
I spent four days in Eilat, a city on the southernmost tip of Israel that rests on the Red Sea and borders Egypt and Jordan. Many families come there on vacations, but young people visit to party. A comparison to Key West in the United States might be appropriate. I was relaxing by the hotel pool in the evening because my friends had gone to bed, and soon a group of five teenage girls walked onto the deck. Once they realized that I was an American, they rushed over and demanded that I speak English to them since they had been learning the language in high school.
Then, as I expected, two of them began to flirt with me in an effort to get some of my beer. After it was established that, for obvious reasons, I was not interested, one of the girls asked a question, in English, that shocked me because these girls had said that they go to a dati (religious) school: “One of my friends is a slut. Do you want to meet her?” As politely as possible, I said, “no, thank you.” I explained, in my very basic Hebrew, that I do not like girls who behave in that way. But these girls were absolutely puzzled – they seemingly could not understand how a guy could turn down sex.
Another girl in the group, perhaps to her credit, at least wanted to offer some advice. She said, in perfect English: “If you respect women, they won’t respect you.” I was absolutely mortified that a woman — a teenage girl who is still growing up, especially — would believe this. But the more that I reflected on Israeli culture, the more understandable it became. Israel is a very traditional society — for better and for worse. The focus on family and community is a positive quality, but the gender relations here would enrage American feminists. Israeli culture, like many things in the Middle East, is a paradox.
I was walking through Eilat with a friend and her two younger sisters when a random guy stopped the 14-year-old sister and called her “cutie” in Hebrew while trying to touch her face and pull her closer. (She ducked and ran to us, mortified.) I heard a twentysomething guy talking loudly to his friends in public about the size of a part of his girlfriend’s lower anatomy. Women in the military are routinely harassed (see here and here). These things happen all the time. Moreover, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav allegedly sexually harassed, and possibly raped, female employees. Haim Ramon, a former justice minister, was convicted of forcibly kissing a female army officer.
This mentality and these actions, for a variety of reasons, seem to be endemic to the culture. Larry Derfner, writing in The Jerusalem Post that many Israeli men act like boors while traveling abroad, offers a few possible explanations:
I’ve got a few, not terribly original, ideas why: the harshness of the Hebrew language, climate and landscape; the hardship and poverty of daily life that existed here until the current generation; the callousness that came from pioneering in a hard, hostile country; the resentment, alongside a limitless sense of entitlement, that comes from nurturing a national self-image as the world’s eternal victim; and the near-fanatical spoiling of Israeli children.
I have a few additional ones of my own. Orthodox Judaism is essentially the only form of Judaism in Israel, and it is becoming increasingly extreme and, some would say, discriminatory towards women. The country’s historical and cultural memory, which is highly based on military service and accomplishment, places a high value on acting “tough.” The country, people may think, would not have survived if everyone was “nice.” In general, Israelis have also adopted many of the cultural norms of the general Middle East, where feminism is not exactly a pressing concern.
An Israeli acquaintance – who, it might be relevant to say, is a gay man — calls many Israeli men “baboons.” I think, on some level, this is what the American-Israeli meant when she told me that “nice, Jewish guys” are in short supply in Israel. Families and friends, I suppose, want to find a guy for their loved ones who does not act like a stereotypical Israeli. I hope it is not arrogant of me to say that I am flattered.