Travel Stories »

Why Israelis Are So Argumentative

Excerpt from Tales of a Road Junky by Tom Thumb

Israelis liked to joke about themselves, saying ‘you put four Israelis in a room and you’ll have five opinions. There was certainly no shortage of attitude in the country – children of 8 years old already had established political views and were well trained at the Shabbat dinner table in the art of argument. Observe the raucous shouting, denials and abuse that accompanies a speech in the Israeli parliament and you could only blame their parents for setting the style when they were young.

A joke of my own invention:

How does an Israeli agree with you?

He says no.

I’d walk into a shop and remark what a hot day it was and the shopkeeper would look at me as though I was stupid.

” No, it’s very hot. This is a very hot country in the summer. Where are you from? England? You don’t know what is hot.”

A joke circulating around Israel at the time was:

Why does no one make love in the street in Tel Aviv?

Because if they did some guy would come along and say:

‘Come on, put your hand on her thigh – no lower! Now get on top – No! Where did you learn to fuck? Alright, move aside and I’ll show you…’

I understood from the beginning in Israel that I wasn’t likely to ever win an argument and so I rarely bothered fighting my corner. They had been practising all their lives and so what chance did I have in a shouting match?

In fact, by not arguing I was often able to get what I wanted anyway. People were so ready to fight and shout that a polite agreement often left them speechless. On my last trip to Israel the immigration officer didn’t want to let me in as I’d overstayed my visa on both the previous visits.

“Tell me, why should I let you in this time?” he asked as he looked down his nose at me in his office. I hung my head low and replied:

“I’m very sorry. I made a mistake and now I’ve learnt my lesson.” He looked at me edgily.

“I shouldn’t let you in at all this time but I’m going to give you five weeks and if you overstay even one day you’ll never come back in.”

“I’m very grateful to you for this second chance. And I’d be even more grateful if you could just make it two months as I have a flight out in December.”

“Okay, but not one day more!”

Sometimes though the obstinate, persistent streak in Israelis could be endearing or downright entertaining. A friend of mine caught an obscure infection at a festival and had to be rushed to hospital to go on an antibiotic drip. I came to visit whenever I could, sleeping overnight in a chair beside the bed. That kind of thing pissed off the nurses and they made hell for us, throwing all the lights on at 6 in the morning and shouting at us for having made a mess.

In the next bed across, however, was a guy in his forties called Yonatan, a regular in the hospital due to some untreatable disease in his leg. He used to rustle up extra plates of food for us and when we thanked him, complimenting the food, he’d look back at us sharply.

“What? You think I would give you bad food?” And once more he’d have you on the ropes. When the nurses were giving us a hard time for no reason though, Yonatan would go onto the offensive, his voice booming across the ward.

“Nurse! Nurse! Tell me, which came first – the chicken or the egg?” The nurse rolled her eyes and edged away, “Because if was the chicken, where did it come from?”

“Yonatan, be quiet.”

“But if it was the egg – who laid it?” Yonatan would continue gleefully, his spirits rising with every grimace he extracted from the nurses. Facing a seasoned pro like Yonatan, they knew they had no chance and made themselves scarce.

Israelis never seemed quite as in their element as when they were angry. I remember one vivid scene of an Israeli guy standing in the middle of a busy street with his cell phone in his hand, yelling furiously at the receiver as though it were the face of his boss/brother/father on the other end of the line.

But argument was also a way of life in Israel and it took me some time to understand that even the best of friends might sometimes shout at each other as though they were worst enemies. But whereas in other cultures these encounters would have left unforgivable grudges, Israelis were mostly capable of moving on in minutes.

I was staying with my friend Noah in her apartment in Tel Aviv in an old renovated warehouse. She and the other people in the building had held a big party to make some money, turning their homes into a nightclub for an evening and all their furniture had been stashed in the apartment of Schmuel, in number 8. The next day Noah wanted her furniture back but Schmuel was having his siesta and, with classic Israeli chutzpah, he declined to get up and open the door.

“Benzona!” Son of a bitch, she yelled, pounding on his door with her fist. I imagined that they wouldn’t be on speaking terms for weeks but two days later they were sharing mid-morning coffee like nothing had happened.

Download Tales of a Road Junky and read more about Israel and other journeys.