Opinion

To Know Israelis, Watch Them Drive

All the Israeli aggression and violence and total lack of consideration for the other, any other, the bitterness and maybe even the hatred are reflected on the asphalt of Israel’s roads

A traffic jam blocking the Namir Road in Tel Aviv.
\ Moti Milrod

Nitzan Horowitz was good enough to write in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz this week about the daily battle among motorists to merge onto the Rokach Boulevard overpass in Tel Aviv. Horowitz thinks it’s all because of “the abandonment of the public space and systematic lack of enforcement.” Horowitz wants more police and more enforcement on the roads. He thinks it will change the situation and then he’ll be able to ease onto the overpass, with everyone patiently waiting their turn. Horowitz doesn’t know Israelis.

There is no better place in which to become acquainted with Israelis’ character than on the roads. Fifteen minutes of driving teaches more than any anthropological study. Try merging into traffic at the Place de l’Etoile in Paris if you want to get to know the French. Get to know Egyptians by trying to cross the street near Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And go to a four-way stop at an intersection in Columbus, Ohio, where everybody waits their turn, if you want to know the American Midwest. Look how Swedes manage to wait in line in their cars as they board a ferry if you want to know Scandinavia. And witness Germans whizzing by in exemplary precision on the autobahn to know Germany.

“The Israeli is no uglier than a Frenchman under pressure or a nervous American,” wrote Horowitz, who, unlike me, has spent several years abroad. Still, I dare say that he is wrong. Swedes don’t obey the law when they drive because of the police. British people aren’t polite on the road because of hidden cameras. The road represents a microcosm of all the collective national urges and values and language and morals. In a word, culture.

The Israeli road makes you feel bad, but not because the police aren’t present on it. There aren’t a lot of experiences in Israel that are tougher than driving the country’s roads. Constant tension. Hesitate for a second and you’ll get a chorus of car horns blaring furiously. Stop on the road for a moment and the gates of hell open up. Signaling turns is for suckers. Why signal? What, who died? Giving the right of way is a sign of weakness. Leaving room for another car to park is an art installation.

No policeman will change that. Nor will any police cruiser. All the Israeli aggression and violence and total lack of consideration for the other, any other, the bitterness and maybe even the hatred are reflected on the asphalt of Israel’s roads. And why has Israel become a country of jeeps? Because they’re the biggest and strongest. The highest and most heavy-handed, the way we like it. Even well-meaning, nerdy types turn into hateful monsters on the Israeli road, and it has nothing to do with enforcement of the law.

Israelis have quit a lot of their old habits, from picking wildflowers to strewing sunflower seed shells on the floor of the movie theater, to sticking gum under their seats, to smoking in restaurants, to sneaking into movies – and not because they’re afraid of getting caught.

In our childhood, there were inspectors galore, but we still smoked at the movies, with our cigarettes between our legs. “I saw a flashlight; that means an inspector has come in; which means that we’re going to be fined,” go the lyrics to the old song “Cinema Gashash.” And we laughed.

It stopped, because Israel changed. It wasn’t a change handed down from above. Society recognized these habits as wrong, as something you just don’t do. It was more effective than any enforcement.

On the country’s roads, the opposite is true. The road is the Israeli’s alter ego. Anything goes on the road. An army of police won’t stop it. The watchword on the road is, Don’t be a sucker, which is the essence of being Israeli. Not being a sucker is the supreme value. If you wait your turn to get onto the Rokach overpass, you’re a sucker. But if you cut in at the head of the line of cars, you’re no one’s sucker. If you station a policeman on Rokach, Israelis will detour to the Ayalon highway. Put a camera on the freeway and Israelis will get off before they reach it. The strictest enforcement won’t change the national character.

Israelis who’ll rush to help a woman who’s fallen on the sidewalk will threaten to ram into her car if she’s driving too slowly. Israelis who would volunteer to rescue earthquake survivors in Kamchatka won’t let a driver in his 90s merge into their lane, and to hell with the courts. All of the hate and frustration comes out on the road. Try us. Watch Israelis drive in another country and see how we change in a matter of minutes. And it’s not from fear of a Swedish policeman.