OpinionJewish & Israeli Culture

Is chutzpah a bug or a feature of Israeli life?

It’s how Israel has overcome impossible odds.

Israeli flag. Credit: Maxim Studio/Shutterstock.
Israeli flag. Credit: Maxim Studio/Shutterstock.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. The author of three books, he teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.

Israel has the chips stacked against it when it comes to economic success. Unlike many other Middle Eastern states, Israel has no natural resources to bolster its economy. While other nation’s treasuries overflow with oil money, 60% of Israel is empty desert. Add to this Israel’s security concerns, and the Jewish state’s survival is considered by many to be miraculous and its success inexplicable.

In their book Start-Up Nation, authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer took an innovative approach to explaining Israeli hi-tech companies’ considerable success in the global marketplace. Senor and Singer pointed to Israel’s mandatory military service and Israeli culture in general as the key to Israel’s success. Military service shapes and forms the Israeli population, as soldiers learn teamwork, courage and, most importantly for the roles they’ll be playing in civilian life, how to innovate.

Senor and Singer pointed to the fact that most armies have a strict hierarchy in which high-ranking officers give orders to lower-ranking officers with no room for the latter to express their opinions. The IDF is different. Lower-ranking officers are not only allowed to offer their opinions, but are encouraged to do so.

The lack of formality in the IDF can seem outrageous to experienced soldiers from other militaries. They sometimes say there’s only one word for it—chutzpah. The IDF’s indulgence of chutzpah encourages boldness of thought, creativity and self-confidence. On the battlefield, these traits can make the difference during harrowing operations like the 1976 Entebbe rescue. In the hi-tech world, chutzpah fosters a culture of innovation and creativity.

Israeli chutzpah spreads to realms outside the battlefield and the marketplace. Most non-Israelis who have watched a Knesset debate are shocked by the raucous lack of decorum. Knesset members yell at each other, interrupt speakers mid-sentence and even openly mock each other. If chutzpah at its best creates apps that change the world, chutzpah at its worst manifests in a Knesset that resembles an out-of-control kindergarten more than a world-class parliament.

The lack of decorum in the Knesset isn’t only attributable to chutzpah, but also to a general lack of formality and sensitivity in Israeli society. Israeli drivers seem to wake up angry and honking their car horns every morning. Traffic lights barely turn green and cars three or four back in line already start honking their horns. There’s little to no consideration for the angst this causes other drivers or the noise pollution that disturbs entire neighborhoods every morning. The general lack of decorum creeps into every aspect of Israeli life. Store clerks are more likely to scold and refuse to help than offer customer service and government workers are obstinate and create bureaucratic quagmires that seem insurmountable.

Anglo immigrants to Israel from countries like England, Australia, South Africa and America struggle the most with Israeli chutzpah and lack of formality. The constant honking grates on their nerves, the lack of customer service befuddles them and the government bureaucracy upsets them to levels where they almost want to find Theodor Herzl and convince him to keep at his job as a journalist instead of creating Zionism. When talking to Anglo immigrants in Israel, complaints about these aspects of Israeli society are frequently heard, along with dismay that Israelis cannot act with more refinement and civility.

The immigrants who strive to improve (in their eyes) Israeli society through Anglo-style patience, courtesy and politeness fail to recognize that Israel could only have succeeded because of chutzpah and lack of formality. Herzl and other early Zionist activists’ audaciousness in attempting to convince the world to give the Jewish people their historic homeland and allow them to create a state required an overdose of chutzpah. When the British turned their backs on the Jewish people with their White Paper, the Jewish people’s chutzpah led them to fight the British instead of giving up on the dream of their own state.

An argument can be made that refining Israeli life to look more like Anglo countries could harm Israel’s success. Israeli chutzpah isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Israel’s triumph is directly tied to its culture. The IDF didn’t create this lack of formality, it is inherent in Israeli life. It was forged in the swamps the early Zionists drained, the fields where Haganah and Irgun fighters fought to defend the nascent State of Israel and in the study halls where Torah scholars who survived the Holocaust recreated their old communities in a new Land of Israel. As long as Israeli chutzpah persists, Israel will continue to overcome impossible odds.

Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. The author of three books, he teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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