Yair Lapid
Photo: Yoni Hamenachem

Israel’s 10 plagues

Passover special: Yair Lapid writes about the 10 greatest problems faced by Israelis today

1. Jealousy

“There’s one significant difference between America’s business culture and Israel’s business culture,” I told a group of American businesspeople I was asked to address. “Around here, we don’t have what you call a win-win situation.”


The Americans stared at me with confusion, yet the Israelis in the room started to nod, as smiles spread across their faces.


The win-win situation is the basis for America’s entire business world. Instead of wasting our time attempting to defeat each other, let’s find a way that will make both of us gain and go home satisfied. In Israel it doesn’t work, because the only meaning of victory is seeing your rival’s body lying trampled on the floor. We may have learned this in the army, or maybe it’s part of the Jewish character, but victory isn’t worth much for us unless we had a chance to truly pulverize someone.


This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a small society like Israel’s, competitiveness is necessary. The problem is that with the passage of them it produces another phenomenon, which is much more worrisome: We hate winners.


When the Americans see someone like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, who made billions thanks to their talent and determination, the first thing they say to themselves is “I want to be like him.” This, in many ways, is the engine that drives Western society: The desire to make it like the winners. Why? Because the basic premise is that they made it big because they’re talented.


On the other hand, when Israelis see someone successful, the first thing that crosses their mind is “I hope he loses it all.” I wish to see this schmuck falling on his face. I hope his business gets closed down, his too-pretty wife leaves him, the police probe him and he ends up in jail. Why? Our basic assumption is that they succeeded because they stole something from us when we weren’t paying attention.


Succeeding in life is a difficult business – you need to work 16 hours a day, face failures along the way, remember that nobody owes you a thing, and take risks. It’s much easier to sit home and say “it’s impossible to succeed in Israel without favoritism.”


2. Superficiality 

Every time someone laments the death of Israel’s leftist camp, I tell them to read rightist blogs and websites. Why? Because rightist publications are the last place where the Left still rules the country. When you read them, you discover that leftists control the army, the courts, the government (that is, the Lieberman-Bibi government!), the media, and US Jewry. If it wasn’t so dangerous and crazy, it would be funny.


On the other hand, don’t the leftists do the exact same thing? After all, any religious Jew in this country has at least three stories about the time he was treated like a combination of Yigal Amir and Rabbi Levinger just because he goes to synagogue on Shabbat.


We expect intelligent people to be able to distinguish between “they” and “him.” Not all Jews are thieves, only Bernie Madoff is, not all Israelis are suicide terrorists, only Baruch Goldstein was, not all army veterans are disgusting thugs, but rather, only those who trashed their Cyprus hotel room.


People like to invent enemies. It spares us the need to address complex worldviews. Anyone who thinks differently becomes a murky, malicious element threatening our lives. Every such element has a name. “The seculars,” for example, are people who have sex with virgins at night club bathrooms, do drugs, and lack any values. “The haredim” are a bunch of parasites who produce children all the time, don’t join the army, and have no interest in working. “The religious” are delusional settlers who only care about the occupation, “the leftists” are all bleeding hearts,” and “the rightists” are not too bright.


The strange thing is that the very same people who resort to such generalizations are deeply offended when such generalizations are applied to them. They are convinced that if only we listen to them, they’ll surprise us. For some reason, they are unwilling to pay the natural price for this privilege: Listening to others as well.


3. Self-righteousness 

Does the Itamar massacre shock you? Are you sure it shocks you? How much does it shock you? Are you shocked enough? If the massacre happened in Tel Aviv, would you be more shocked or less shocked?


Are you interested in speaking at a women’s rights panel? If it was a panel on billiards or poker, would you have time? What’s so important that you have no time for such important panel? What can we conclude about your attitude to women then?


Do you know how many Gaza children were killed in Operation Cast Lead? Don’t you see this as a stain on your conscience? Don’t you think that people who keep silent are no less guilty? Are you in favor of peace? If you’re in favor of peace but do nothing about it, does it mean you’re against peace?


Are you in favor of securing Gilad Shalit’s release? What do you mean when you say “of course”? Did you attend the rally in support of his release? How many such rallies did you attend? How can you talk about the “details of the swap” when he’s imprisoned there – don’t you have a heart?


4. Victimization  

In English it’s called “Shit happens.” In French they say “C’est la vie.” In Spanish it’s “Asi es la vida.”


There’s almost no language that doesn’t includes an expression that means, simply, that bad things sometimes happen. Life is a dirty, sad business, and sometimes the earth shakes, a flood hits, fire erupts, and accidents happen. It’s terrible, but that’s how it is and nobody is at fault.


Only in Hebrew there is no such expression, and that’s not a coincidence.


Around here, when something bad happens, we want someone to be at fault. If we’re hurting, we want someone else to hurt even more. If a disaster befalls us, someone must pay the price. If he’s not a criminal, then he’s an offender; or at least negligent. In any case, he should quit. If he doesn’t quit, it means he refuses to take responsibility, this scumbag, so let’s get a lawyer and sue him.


Those who saw the calm, noble manner in which the Japanese addressed the tsunami and earthquake should keep in mind the following fact: Japan, a country of 126 million citizens, has fewer lawyers than Israel. Perhaps that’s the reason why they are focusing on rehabilitation rather than on accusations or lawsuits – because the Japanese too know how to say “shit happens.”


Around here, the demand for a commission of inquiry to look into the Carmel blaze was voiced while the fire was still burning. Bring us someone’s head, we demanded, doesn’t matter who, as long as it’s clear that someone’s at fault for what happened to us.


There’s one thing you must know about commissions of inquiry: They always find something. After all, it’s impossible for committee to hire investigators, question witnesses, uncover documents, discuss the issues for long months, and then one day convene a press conference and say: “Good evening - following an intensive, lengthy investigation we are forced to declare that we found nothing. Thank you and good night.”


Can you imagine what would happen then? Precisely. Someone will establish a commission of inquiry to look into what went wrong.


5. Our system of government 

Everyone thinks that the State of Israel has no minister of health, but they’re wrong. The state of Israel has a talented health minister called Benjamin Netanyahu.


Mr. Netanyahu is our 12th health minister in the past 15 years. Can we manage a healthcare system that way? Obviously not. Can we manage any other system that way? Obviously not.


6. Taking God’s name in vain 

There’s nothing wrong with our God, the problem is all those people among us who claim that they are the only ones holding the right user manual.


Indeed, God has become everyone’s favorite excuse including the most delusional people. You drive through the streets of Beit Shemesh and see a “Taliban woman” draped in black, walking slowly with her children behind her. If the men in white robes arrive, she will explain to them, with deep self-conviction, that God spoke to her, personally, and told her she must wear a tent.


However, it’s not only the modesty discourse that has gone mad (“Modesty, Hanna, modesty,” I heard a haredi father yelling at his five-year-old girl. Five-year-old, for God’s sake!). God has become everyone’s excuse, including the worst people here.


Those who don’t want to join the army, and those who don’t wish to work, those who don’t want to teach their children math and English, those who beat up an old Arab under his olive tree, those who slash an IDF commander’s tires, those who march in Umm al-Fahm, those who murder someone and enter court with a black kippah on their head, those who dance around an empty chair and claim that their rabbi is the messiah, those burning garbage dumpsters in Meah Shearim, and those who use their rabbinical authority to declare that former President Katsav is not guilty.


As Bob Dylan said many years ago, this is why many good people quit religion and go back to God.


7. Denial 

Ten days before Passover, one of Israel’s largest venture capital funds held a top management meeting. The issue on the agenda: Preparing for sanctions against Israel. “The government may afford to ignore what’s happening around us, but we must protect our investments,” one executive told me. “The sanctions will apparently come, so we better prepare for them.”


The executive in question is a former IDF officer at an elite unit; he is a good Zionist who will never live in another country, yet just like any wise businessman, he knows that one must not ignore reality.


So what are such sanctions like? Those who lived here before 1985 can tell you about life when the Arab boycott was still in place, when McDonald’s and Pepsi and Toyota and Ford shunned us. In 2011 terms it means that Mazda’s latest model or the latest iPhone won’t be getting here, that our basketball teams won’t be playing in the European championship, and that most websites will politely decline our Israeli credit cards.


The above is a plausible scenario, yet the reason nobody around here bothers to prepare for it is that we decided to go with a much better idea: Instead of conducting a realistic policy vis-à-vis the real threats we’re facing, we’re closing our eyes, shutting our ears, and singing “Hava Nagila.” While we’re at it, let’s also ignore the fact that some 50% of first graders this year were either haredi or Arab, ignore the fact that socioeconomic gaps in Israel are the largest in the Western world, and wholly disregard the fact that Jerusalem is home to more than 250,000 Arabs.


This is our new policy: We ignore unpleasant facts, and if someone reminds us of them we accuse him of being anti-Israel and ask him not to bother us, because we’re too busy committing suicide.


8. Education 

I wrote about it countless times. I sat with friends countless times and yelled that those who fail to understand that nothing is more important than education understand nothing. A thousand times I quoted the key sentence in McKinsey’s report on the state of our education: “The education system’s quality cannot be better than the quality of its teachers.”


We think that we’re building a state here, but that’s a mistake. Nobody builds states. People build schools, and states are built around these schools on their own. You’ll discover that the most expensive real estate is always around the best school. The highest percentage of students who join the army is always at good schools. Those who make the most money are always graduates of the best schools. It’s really not that complicated: If the schools are good, so are the states, and if schools are bad, we get states like Egypt or Sudan.


There isn’t one person in Israel who doesn’t understand that education is the only thing that guarantees our qualitative advantage over Arab states, or that our education system is broken and everything must be done to fix it.


We had one prime minister here who forced the Treasury to pay the teachers more. Finance Ministry officials grumbled but had to cave in. After the negotiations ended, the PM told them: This is what you’re complaining about? We all know that we should have doubled teacher salaries, because in the long run they’re more important than any F-16 jet.


In theory, they agreed with him. In practice, Israel’s education system is facing total collapse.


9. Wickedness 

Did you ever ask yourself why Leonardo DiCaprio tried to evade Israel’s paparazzi? After all, he’s one of Hollywood’s top stars and has been chased by paparazzi his entire life. He’s used to it, no? No. This was the first time it happened to him with such intensity, such aggressiveness, such invasiveness, and such utter shamelessness. Things in America, Europe or anywhere else are different.


Israel is the only country Elton John ran away from, because the Israeli press pursued him. Elton John! Can you imagine what he went through during his 40-year career? Nonetheless, he’s never seen the kind of conduct he encountered here.


Ask any soccer player, singer or actor here how they react when they see their name in the paper. Ask them about the quivers, the fear, and the knowledge that it’s going to be something bad, and gossipy, and sour, and that they hope their parents won’t be reading it.


We’ve become completely unrestrained. In the talkbacks (which only in Israel accompany every article,) in the words written by the established press, in our websites, in the kind of talk we hear at soccer games, and in the impromptu interview with the man on the street following a terror attack. “I hope a missile lands in Tel Aviv too!” he yells into the microphone: “So they feel it too!”


10. Proportionality  

It’s all about the quantities.


In small doses, all the plagues described here can be a positive thing. If it doesn’t turn destructive, jealousy is a highly efficient incentive. The perception of “us” and “them” is the basis for creating a nation-state. Self-righteousness is merely an annoying version of justice that someone insists on shoving down our throat. Victimization may be annoying, but very few people will deny that southern residents, for example, are true victims.


There are very few good things to say about our system of government, but we must admit that Israel’s democracy is withstanding both the external and domestic threats. God was and remains much better than the people speaking on His behalf. To some extent, denial is a necessary and healthy matter if we wish to maintain our sanity. The state of education here is shocking, but let’s not forget the thousands of exceptional teachers here who do holy work. Even wickedness, in reasonable measures, adds a little spice to life, and without it there would be no free press.


The problem is that we don’t know how to draw the lines. Everything around here seems too crowded, too loud, and without limits. It’s a reality on steroids that cannot draw its own boundaries. Perhaps this is what we need to wish ourselves this Passover: To have the same, but less of it.



פרסום ראשון: 04.19.11, 15:09
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