Almost every time I meet someone new here in Estonia and tell them where I’m from, I get a similar response: “Oh Israel? – How interesting!” Once I even heard “How exotic!” (loved that). Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it but countless times throughout this semester I’ve found myself in deep discussions about Israel, answering various questions and trying to picture my life there to whoever was interested. Through these random encounters and interesting conversations I’ve enjoyed learning about the verity outside perspectives regarding my home country and talking about my own personal experience and views of it. In light of this, in this month’s article I’ve decided to share with you a bit of inside knowledge about the Israeli culture, in hope you’ll find it interesting as well. By the way, I study cultural studies in my college back home and this is probably why I’m so obsessed with the subject.
Stigmas construct our knowledge
Have you seen the movie “Eurotrip” (2004)? It’s a classic American comedy (kind of like “American Pie”) about four Americans traveling around Europe and getting into funny situations. I was surprised to learn here in Estonia that most Europeans don’t know this film, even though it is pretty famous and about Europe, but I understood that one of the reasons it wasn’t broadly accepted at the time was because of the stigmatic prejudices it affirmed regarding different European countries and their people. You know what I mean; stigmas like all the French are arrogant and eat weird things, all the Estonians have no emotions etc. Stigmatic cultural prejudices are also constructed in our thoughts through jokes like “If Germans do have a sense of humor, it’s only because they scheduled it in their calendar a month in advance”. It sucks but sometimes we actually do judge people before getting to know them because of these sayings without even knowing when, why and how they originated.
As a Middle Eastern citizen, one of the funniest stigmatic questions I’ve encountered so far (a few times) was “do you ride a camel from place to place?” The obvious answer is no. Although there are certain areas (especially in the south) where people do own camels, you can be sure the common transportation vehicle in Israel (and in most of the Middle East) is a car which doesn’t drive on sand and rocks but on completely normal paved roads. Spread the word. In fact, Israel has evolved quite a lot over the past 69 years since it was founded. Did you know it is considered to be one of the most advanced countries when it comes to modern technologies and that Tel-Aviv is the capital start-up city in the world? Some of the cool Israeli inventions you might know for example: ICQ, Waze, solar water heaters, cherry tomatoes, Acetone, TAKI cards, and USB discs. If you’d like to learn more about Israel’s start-up industry, you can read about it in this website http://nocamels.com/ (the name says it all).
A surprising question I heard quite a lot in these past months was “Are you Jewish?” I understand why this is a relevant question, since Israel is considered a Jewish country but there are a lot of Christians and Muslims living there as well. And yes, I am Jewish – born and raised. Though every time I’m asked this I wonder- if I answer ‘yes’ – what will it mean to the person who’s asking? Because you’ll be surprised to learn that Judaism is perceived differently by Jewish communities and individuals in Israel and around the world. Also, a large part of Israelis who do consider themselves Jewish don’t necessarily practice the religion rather their Jewish identity is more of a cultural heritage that is respected due to its long history. For example, a lot of secular Jews keep the tradition of family dinners on the Jewish holy day of the week (Saturday), which includes lighting candles and praying for the wine and bread.
Culture is always relative
To explain the complexity of the Israeli culture it would probably take about 8 pages minimum, since even though it is a small country, it holds various cultural aspects. But in short, I will tell you that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that was brought up with direct influence by the Western world culturally and politically. The founders of the country (1948) mostly came from Europe, and so saw the Western culture as their role model. Because of this, there are many similarities between Israel, Europe and America, besides having a democratic government. But over the years since the country’s foundation, Jewish people from all around the globe left their homes to come and live in Israel and brought with them their cultural influences as well.
When I say all around the globe, I mean it; Russia, Ukraine, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Poland, America, Ethiopia, Greece, Tunisia, France, Austria, Kurdistan, Persia, Germany, Argentina, and the list goes on and on! Israel is an immigrant country. That’s one of my favorite things about it. Although the combination of cultures does often create diversity and conflict, the way I see it, it also gradually creates one synchronized culture that is a mixture of them all. The Israeli popular music is a good example for this. There are many different popular genres listened to in Israel today like Pop, Hip-Hop, Techno, Middle-Eastern music, Soft Rock, Metal and so on. But all are usually influenced by each other and some even deliberately try to blend all genres together. You can enter the following link to hear Kutiman, one of the most famous artists who do this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izSRjdYln8E .
Talking about music, you’ve probably heard Israel has a really good night clubbing scene. Tel-Aviv is well known on the map when it comes to partying. But one thing you might know about is the Psy-trance scene. Since the early 90s, it is one of the most popular underground music genres in Israel. Ever since, if you know the right people, you can go almost every weekend to what we call “Nature Parties”. These are secret parties that are thrown in hidden nature spaces (in the desert or in the woods), that usually begin around 4 am, and continue going for the whole day after. Even if you’re not a fan of Psy-trance, if you visit Israel I would recommend you try to go to one of these unique events. I guarantee you’ll experience a beautiful and colorful nature adventure and be surrounded by loving and accepting people who are all about having fun.
Perspective is also relative
Israel is well known in the global media as the most controversial country in the Middle East and it does appear quite often in news headlines. I’m not going to talk about Israel’s politics in this article or about the conflict with the Palestinians (as much as it is an interesting topic), since that will take up another 20 pages if not more. The situation is complicated and honestly it sucks. One thing I will say though is that just like every other country, there are many different political perspectives (some contradicting each other) and so you should always hear an opinion from more than one person to fully understand the complexity. Also, don’t easily believe everything you hear on the news, there are always two sides or more to a story, or a conflict,and the media has a tendency of narrowing it down to only one (whichever it is).
In this article I tried to introduce you to my home country or at least to a small portion of it and if any of you have further questions you’re more than welcome to ask me personally. To be honest, the main point I wanted to share with you through this article was my opinion on the importance of learning about a culture from an internal point of view. Because even if some stigmatic prejudices we had about a culture appeared to be true (like that Italians do loveee their Pizza), it is only through deepened human relationships that we learn that there is so much more to a person, a culture, or a country, than what is said about them from the outside perspective. Being an ERASMUS student in a foreign country definitely reminded me how limited our knowledge is when it comes to other cultures. But during this semester, we’ve been constantly introduced to students from all around the world, some of which we also made good friendships with (thankfully). I wish us all to learn from this experience how to put aside our pre-judgments in general and how to allow ourselves to expand our knowledge and hearts towards others. Peace.
By Aviya Attas
Translate by Triin Tikk
Edited by Kärt Mättikas