index.html   Israelis Tell How (Other) Israelis Behave Abroad: Negotiating Group-Identity
in Everyday Stories

Rakefet Sela-Sheffy

Unit of Culture Research

Tel Aviv University


            This paper examines the dynamics of co-construction and contestation of a shared sense of Israeli identity performed through stories Israelis tell each other about how (other) Israelis behave abroad, and the discursive strategies individuals in this culture employ to mark their sense of involvement or detachment vis-à-vis this collective identity. My analysis is based on a sample of about 1700 talk-backs to 14 Internet news-items dealing with the bad reputation of Israeli tourists, mainly abroad (Y-net 2001-2003). These stories mostly narrate events of violating norms of “civilized conduct” to support the speaker’s or other respondents’ argument, or to dispute the latter. In contradistinction to the political-ideological issues of conflict (ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc.) that are taken to be at the heart of Israeli identity disputes, these stories express a “pursuit of culturedness,” where good manners and genuine culture” are presented as the major assets on which the writers of the talk-backs tend to draw for gaining symbolic capital in their self-presentation and status claim. Wavering between a total rebuke and personal alienation, patronizing and caring reproach, and expressions of solidarity with regard to a generalized “Israeli person”, the narrators invest great efforts in building their credibility, thus revealing a social struggle over the authority to condemn or speak in behalf of this collective identity.


            Stories of personal experience and anecdotes are vital rhetorical components of everyday talk. As research into the organization of informal verbal interactions has shown, telling a story in the course of such interaction helps increase the attention of the audience and focalize the arguments (Labov 1966, 1972), create cooperation among the participants in the exchange (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1974, Blum-Kulka 1993, 1998) and frame their meaning-production (Polanyi 1981, 1989; Tannen 1990, Coates 1996, Capps 1999). Furthermore, the study of talk has pointed at the dual motivation and role of what is being told, which oscillate between (personal) status and (social) solidarity (Gee 1996). While by talking and telling their personal experience the individual speakers are engaged in acts of self-presentation, seeking idealization and status as individuals (Goffman 1959; also Benoit 1997, Hunt & Miller 1997, Mishler 1999, Erickson 2004), these tellers are at the same time also engaged in negotiating and co-constructing common visions of the world, values and senses of identity that they share or contest with their audience (Davis 1994, Coates 1996, Katriel 1999, Lamont 2000, Howarth 2002, Moriarty 2005). Consequently, although such stories take shape in particular real-time situations, like other everyday behavior patterns, they inevitably reveal a considerable regularity in employing a common stock of “things to be told”, a shared repertoire of events and figures of speech, which the speaker can assume are identifiable by their audience and evaluated by them as meaningful legitimate resources (Polanyi 1981, Swidler 2001).

            Assuming, with this line of research, that everyday talk is a most important social activity – and sometimes even the primary avenue (Snow & Anderson 1987) – through which individuals negotiate their social world and their place in it, their belonging or exclusion, the abundant mini-narratives which are interwoven in trivial everyday exchange should be highly revealing with regard to how these identity negotiations work. While many studies are concerned with how such telling activities reproduce and confirm codes and values shared by large groups, such as “Americans” (Polanyi 1989), “Israelis” (Katriel 1999), “women” and “men” (Coates 1996, 2003; Tannen 1999), or “working-class men” (Lamont 2000), my focus is on how such stories stimulate disagreements between members of such a generalized group, in the context of an identity struggle discourse, with emphasis on the discursive strategies they provide to mark distinctions, both on the individual and group levels.

AS/SA nº 16, p. 55

            In this paper I will examine the use of such everyday stories in contemporary Israeli popular discourse of identity. My analysis of these stories is part of a broader project in which I explore the accelerated dynamics of identity struggles in contemporary Israel. Footnote As a typical case of an unsettled society, with a relatively high degree of conflicts and shifting power balance between ascending and descending social groups, the struggles over cultural identity and group status in Israeli society are very intense and are highly politicized. They produce a political discourse of identity which heightens existing national, ethnic and religious tensions (e.g., Kimmerling 2001, Shafir & Peled 2002). The trouble is, however, that the study of these struggles has been largely based on “cultural texts” from the fields of politics, the press or various art fields, with little account of how they are shaped through the discourse of ordinary people in their daily life (see Condor 2001). Yet – as presumably is also the case in many other cultural settings – the formation and negotiation of various identity options in Israeli real-life interactions turn out to be more versatile and context-dependent than those presupposed categories established by the official, mostly written, political and academic discourse. Moreover, by contrast to these explicitly ideological categories, it appears that the notion of identity negotiated in Israeli everyday discourse is less pointedly political and more societal, in that it centers on a competition over symbolic capital, where the most conspicuous asset is “culturedness”, namely the possession of good manners and “genuinely civilized life”. Being “civilized” seems to form a most important resource to which people across ethnicities and classes turn for their group-identification and self-esteem (Sela-Sheffy 2004).

            One typical practice through which this “pursuit of culturedness” is manifest is the habit, so popular in Israeli societal encounters, of telling stories about how Israelis (in general) behave abroad. For the most part, these stories attain the tone of complaint and condemnation of an allegedly disgraceful behavior. For all their diversity, versions of similar such stories are repeatedly produced in many various occasions so as to create a stock of familiar folkloric commonplaces, the use of which makes a discursive routine that has “a life of its own” (e.g., Shavit 2001). This discourse permeates Israeli everyday life to the point that every person in this culture is practically pressured to take part in it, one way or another, creating a domestic “griping ritual” (Katriel 1985) that is fully accessible and meaningful to all insiders of this culture and to them alone. Focusing on eye-witnessed stories of Israelis’ bad behavior abroad, told in domestic forums and intended for Israeli ears only, I examine in what follows how these stories are used by participants of these forums to create solidarity or demarcation and to mark their individual position vis-à-vis what they describe as a generalized Israeli identity.


The sample

            My present sample consists of stories told by participants in the lively discourse that develops today through Internet chats. It comprises over 1700 talk-backs to 14 Internet reports (Anonymous 2001, Eichner 2002, Limon 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2001d, 2001e, 2001f, 2000g, 2003, Magal 2002, Palter 2002, Sade 2001, 2002), which appeared between 2001 and 2003 on the Internet site of Ynet (, an on-line newspaper affiliated to Yediot Aharonot, the largest Israeli daily newspaper (for a thorough analysis of such talk-backs, 2001-2002, see Ribke 2004). Footnote This sample is only a small selection from a myriad of similar such talk-backs to Internet reports in the different on-line newspapers and forums available today. These talk-backs are becoming an increasingly significant medium of popular public discourse. They are intended as open, spontaneous reaction forums, in highly colloquial language, with spelling and grammar mistakes, incomplete sentences and vulgar, often offensive language, incited in response to Internet reports dealing with various subjects. There are no restrictions on length or style, or on multiple messages by the same respondent, and the host’s responsibility is limited to warning against and blocking illegal or extremely obscene language. The talk-backs are addressed to the reporter or to other respondents, often creating direct dialogues between different individual respondents. We have no information about the respondents’ background; or, if such information is sporadically offered by the talk-backs it is in any case not verifiable. My analysis is therefore based solely on the verbal material.

AS/SA nº 16, p. 56

            Although this discursive practice lacks many features of a face-to-face interaction, it shares with it the open-ended structure of the exchange, the flow of associations and the use of idiom and classifications. The choice of themes, styles and attitudes is certainly constrained by the conventions established in these forums as cultural institutions (for instance, they often encourage sarcasm and witticisms, even aggressiveness and insolence). However, being self-selected and voluntary, these talk-backs are safe from the problem that often characterizes research interviews, where what is being said is a product of the cooperation (or lack thereof) between the interviewee and the research-interviewer, and depends on the extent to which the interviewee seeks to accommodate to the interviewer’s expectations (Mishler 1987). Evidently, these talk-backs do not serve as a sample-corpus, because they represent only those who have access to the Internet, and specifically those who read Internet newspapers, and care to voice their opinion. However, the population of Internet users in Israel is large and heterogeneous enough Footnote to provide an unmarked evidence of Israeli idiom, worthy of investigating.

            The discourse created by these talk-backs can be compared with that of countless other samples of casual talk about Israeli identity that appear frequently in various popular channels, such as newspapers and magazines, Internet Websites and radio talk-shows, Footnote as well as in infinite everyday verbal interactions. Judging by the verbal expressions in all of these sources, it transpires that most of the respondents to these forums tend to take it for granted that there exists a generalized type of a “standard Israeli”, whom they usually see as a Jew, however non-religious and non-traditional one, Footnote and about whom they have a firm opinion. In most cases they avoid formulating specific sectorial factors, save for a most generalized idea of a Jewish Oriental (Mizrahi) ethnicity, which is sometimes evoked with hostility in heated disputes. The vast quantities and the emotional intensity of these representations make them significant testimonies of Israeli everyday discourse of identity.

Images of “the Israeli person”

            In the sample at hand, the 14 Internet reports tell about the bad behavior of Israeli tourists abroad. The reporters express their concern and assume the position of “ambassadors of good will”, calling for a change of attitude on the part of Israelis in order to rectify their bad reputation. By doing so, they mobilize a prevalent negative image of a collective Israeli person, which portrays the “average Israeli” as basically lacking manners, noisy, vulgar and rude, self-centered, smart-ass and lacking integrity. The common expression they often use to evoke this image is “the ugly Israeli”. Footnote Whether or not this image is faithful to reality, it has long been established by Israeli popular discourse, written and oral alike (see Millner 1994), to the point of becoming a central point of reference against which people form their attitudes, either by way of consensus or by way of contention. As a measure of judgment, or to counter this bleak image of Israeliness, an ideal-type of a “good Israeli” is also always invoked in this discourse. This positive counter-image is basically modeled on two main cultural resources: that of the mythological “authentic” Native Israeli archetype of pre- and early Israeli Statehood (the Sabra), which is mobilized to signify integrity, collective responsibility, patriotism and love for the land (Shapira 1996, Almog 1997), and that of the “civilized foreigner”, and specifically that of the “good old European cultured person”, mobilized to evoke codes of propriety and etiquette, and a self-disciplined, civic mindset (Sela-Sheffy 2004). In the sample of talk-backs at hand, however, this latter model of a “civilized European person” constitutes the absolutely dominant reference alluded to, explicitly or implicitly, by most of the speakers.

            Wavering between these polar, negative and positive, identity images, the Internet discourse about how Israelis behave abroad elicits a heated dispute of highly emotional, often quite offensive conflicting reactions by the respondents. It creates a tension among different attitude-groups, who struggle for the right either to condemn or to defend the collective image of “the Israeli person”. To make their point, the speakers often use short stories of personal experience as means of persuasion. In what follows I will describe some aspects of the use of such stories in the Internet talk-backs I examined, with respect to both their content as well as the ways they contribute to the rhetorical structure of these messages, and how they help to construct the emotional attitudes of the individual speakers.


The use of stories to establish the speakers’ credibility

          The stories narrated in these talk-backs are usually restricted in terms of their “reportability” (Linde 1993), in that they are not intended as stand-alone narratives but are rather specifically instrumental to framing the points the speakers wish to make. Consequently, they are usually very short and simply structured. They usually report an event of breaking normative codes of behavior or violation of the public order, which has been eye-witnessed by the speaker. They usually also include an explicit account of the negative reaction of the speaker to this event, and conclude with a general moral lesson. A typical example sounds as follows:

AS/SA nº 16, p. 57

   Two weeks ago I went to Corfu [...] an island which belongs to Greece […] There are not so many Israelis there, and fortunately I was not in the hotel with them […But] on the aircraft on the flight back there they were[,] like in a [children’s] camp [. They] stood there [and] jumped[,] yelled and what not. I was absolutely repulsed[.] Even during landing the stewardess begged them to sit down and fasten seat-belts. I could not believe there were people like that, and this is all because of [lack of] education. (Limon 2001e, #22).

            Such stories are used either to support the argument made by the reporter or by other respondents or to contest it and challenge its validity. Given the argumentative nature of this discourse as a whole, introducing a story of personal experience has the effect of lending the argument a sense of reliability and sincerity, in shifting from a rhetorical mode of banal generalizations to a dramatizing description of a specific real-life event from the private perspective of the individual speaker, so as to provide the argument with a “proof”, so to speak. In this respect, such mini-narrative segments function in themselves as what William Labov (1972) called “evaluation markers” in the context of the talk-back as a talk unit, in that they accentuate and clarify the point of the whole message and stimulate emotional suspense and identification. Sometimes, this intension is explicitly formulated through an introductory note, such as, for instance: “Let me tell you a little story that happened to me last summer and then you may understand where I got my sarcasm from” (Palter 2002, #69). But very often stories may be simply inserted as an illustration to the point just made, without any such introductions. The following talk-back, for instance, which opens with a statement of the speaker’s stance, proceeds in the next sentence into telling a little story:

I am sorry to disappoint you, but ugly Israelis still exist. In the town Karlovy Vary [Karlsbad] in Czechoslovakia smoking in the center of town is forbidden – and there are explicit signposts indicating that. I saw with my own eyes an Israeli tourist from our group smoking a cigarette while standing by a sign which forbids smoking, which he certainly noticed […] (Palter 2002 #64). Footnote

         In yet other cases, the narrators intensify the credibility of their story by avoiding any interpretive comments before starting the tale, so as to let the story “speak for itself”. For instance: “I know it! I came back from a Jeep-Safari tour in Turkey. There were 6 members in the group that made our life hell, abused the vehicles […]” (Limon 2001d, #315). Similarly, in the following response, directed to the Internet reporter by way of a dispute, the teller avoids formulating an introductory declaration of her stance and emotions. Nevertheless, her antagonistic attitude is divulged through her quasi-official, detached tone: “Dear Mr. Limon. I invite you to a personal conversation about how I have been treated in Cyprus in 1993, in Hilton Nicosia. I went there to marry my English fiancé […] (Limon 2001a, #6).

       To enhance the rhetorical impact of these stories, the speakers often have to build their credibility as narrators and authority to pronounce judgment on the matter discussed (Cameron 2001). Such authority may derive from personal qualifications, such as professional standing or rich experience. For example: “As part of my job I go to European countries 10 to 20 times a year, […] and believe me [I know what I am talking about] when I say ‘trouble’ [since] I have seen things [that are] beyond all the stories you [can] read here” (Limon 2001a, #105); or: “Last summer I went twice to the United States – I have participated in a technological conference, where I spoke a lot with participants from different countries […]” (Limon 2001a, #45). Footnote In other cases, the narrators draw their authority from the immediacy of their experience, demonstrating that their story is still “fresh in their memory”. A speaker may say something like: “[…] By the way, I just came back from Europe a week ago. In a pub in Holland, there were only Dutch people […]” (Eichner 2002, #32). Some times, however, the claim for authority goes deeper to the very meaning-structure of the story itself. The following story, told by way of rejecting the claim that Israelis are ill-behaved, turns out to be actually about the speaker’s own claim for reliability as a “man of culture”:

I am a respectable person [, I] work in the bank all year long [.] I dress carefully and neatly as appropriate to my job and standing. Last summer I was on vacation in Crete in a five-stars hotel [and] the name is not important [.] Since I am on vacation, I naturally go around in a bathing suit the whole day long [,] and one evening I am walking in to dinner wearing shorts [,] but tidy and with a buttoned shirt [,] not a T-shirt [.] The hotel manager approached me rudely and told me I was lowering the level of his hotel and threw me shamefully out of the dining room. I am already approaching fifty [,] and never since I was a boy have I ever been insulted the way I was that day [.] I felt like a boy scolded by a school headmaster. […] By the way, I go abroad an awful lot every year and have never encountered such a brutal behavior. (Palter 2002, #89).

AS/SA nº 16, p. 58

            Typically, this story, which ostensibly also reports a case of an Israeli lack of manners, in fact turns the argument upside down, denying the speaker’s own undeserving behavior and accusing instead the local host with rudeness. To build this inverted argument, heavy rhetorical artillery is invested aiming to support the credibility of the speaker throughout the story, and particularly in its opening “orientation” part (Labov 1972), and in the end, which works as a concentrated evaluation part (ibid.). This artillery consists mainly of information about the narrator’s respectable job and dressing habits (this latter type of information repeats again, just before the climax of the event – the narrator indicates that he was wearing “a button shirt, not a T-shirt” – to invalidate the reason for the hotel manager’s action). It also consists of evoking the large perspective of the narrators’ whole life-history, against the background of which the specific narrated event appears as an unprecedented accident (“never since I was boy”), as well as of a contrastive rhetoric through which the hotel manager’s action is presented as a severe violation of adults’ norms of a civilized social encounter, and specifically of the sanction against causing someone to lose face (“I felt like a boy”). All these techniques are employed here to create a story exemplifying a generalized narrative of prejudice and misjudgment, which in this case is represented by the attitude of the hotel manager, to contradict the negative opinion against the speaker’s behavior and present himself as a victim of an unsubstantiated bias, mobilizing the audience against those who hold on to this bias.

            As emerges from the preceding excerpt and from many other instances in the sample at hand, the function of such stories is twofold: they are constructed to say something about “the Israeli person” in general, but at the same time, and not less importantly, they are also used to characterize the speakers’ own identity as an individual, which is defined through the attitude they take vis-à-vis this generalized collective portrait. In this way, such stories help forming different attitude-groups and create a dynamics of contest among them, which makes this whole identity discourse going.


Three strategies of the narrators’ position vis-à-vis “Israeli identity”

            Roughly, these attitudes range between two poles: a total personal alienation from the Israeli collective identity on the one hand, and a strong sense of identifying with it, on the other. Footnote As mentioned, these opposed attitudes, and their various combinations in the different stories told by the participants in this discourse, mobilize two value scales of respectively, that of “universal (European) civilizedness” (an outside perspective), and that of “local patriotism” (an inside perspective). By and large, the strategy of self-distancing, adopting an outside-glance and openly disapproving of the collective national image is the dominant strategy employed in this discourse of identity (see also Condor 2000). However, to the extent that this strategy is valued as highly powerful by a large number of participants in this discourse, it is also strongly opposed, or neutralized, by many others, who take the position of the identifiers and the engaged.

            Let me now briefly outline the three main attitudes that are recurrently produced in the sample.

(a) Alienation

            Stories expressing this stance create a clash between the narrators’ personal mindset and the generalized “Israeli identity”. These stories are constructed to support entirely the argument of Israelis’ bad behavior. They convey sentiments of extreme repulsion and demoralization, often using very offensive terms such as “animals”, “baboons”, “barbarians”, and the like, to indicate the unabridged distance between the norms of “those Israelis” and their own, and concluding with a defensive, pessimistic moral. The narrators’ perspective in these stories is usually that of people looking from the outside, absolutely keeping apart from those whom they describe, denying any common cultural grounds with them. Often, these narrators take the perspective of the foreigners in the story who confront the Israelis – mostly the people in the host countries – identifying with these foreigners’ outrage vis-à-vis what they portray as the Israelis’ offensive conduct. For instance:

I happened to be in Turkey at the time when the Casino was the big thing. We went to the market [and] looked at the carpets which were also in fashion[.] Suddenly one seller got out [of the store] and shouted I don’t sell to Israelis and get lost [!] The minute he said that there got out several other Turkish persons[,] and it was really unpleasant feeling as an Israeli at that moment[.] Why did he yell[?] because the Israelis are stingy[.] It is anyway not too expensive there[.] So the Israeli[,] he would not let them do a number on him[,] he knows everything[,] and so they argue with them to [the point of] disgrace and this is how we look like. [It’s] really a fucked-up nation without education (Sade 2001, #35).

AS/SA nº 16, p. 59

            Sometimes, to rescue themselves, as individuals, from a collective stigma because of “those other Israelis”, the narrators of such stories encourage renouncing being part of this collectivity or hiding their personal ties to it in public. Some of them conclude with suggestions how to avoid being identified as Israelis while traveling abroad. One such narrator tells about his devastating impression of a group of Israeli tourists whose behavior during breakfast he happened to witness as a guest at the same hotel where they were staying, bringing his story to a close by shifting the focus to his own reaction: “What can I tell you? Until breakfast was over I did not say a word in order to avoid being heard talking Hebrew. I was simply ashamed” (Sade 2001, #32).

(b) Reproach combined with deep concern

            This is a very common attitude in the sample, and a very politically correct one, constructed by many everyday stories about Israeli bad behavior. These stories, too, convey the narrators’ harsh criticism of their compatriots’ behavior, yet at the same time they also express a sense of collective responsibility, by calling for individual awareness and self-discipline and by appealing to the authorities to take on an educational project. In this way they show engagement without identification, indicating their moral distinction without entirely cutting themselves off the “Israelis” as a group. The tellers of these stories speak about a unifying “us”, but in a patronizing way that implies their own status as a model for a “civilized” and “cosmopolitan” conduct that should be followed by the “average Israelis” they describe. They are careful not to sound too aggressive and arrogant in expressing shame and embarrassment on behalf of their compatriots. Instead, their typically moralistic message includes care and warning, as well as faith in the possibility of change and in the need to take an active role in spreading norms of civilized behavior. In the following excerpt, a story is interwoven into the speaker’s speech to clarify her point and to formulate a lesson:

I have just come back from a vacation in Eilat [an Israeli town on the Red Sea], and more than anything else I was disturbed by those parents who, when their kids are instructed that “feeding the fish is forbidden” in the coral reserve, they not only do not apologize, but [actually] take the piece of bread from the kid’s hand and feed [the fish] themselves. Ill-mannered adults grow up from kids who are raised with bad manners! Parents: take responsibility!!! (Palter 2002, #94).

            The demand that propriety be taught and imposed, either by parents or by the educational system, is a central lesson offered by this line of stories. Often the moral conclusion is lengthier than the narrative segment itself. In the following example, the reported event is introduced briefly as a clause in a main sentence summarizing the causes for the narrators’ embarrassment, to dramatize the problem and justify her bold request of the education system to take measures to teach Israelis the norms of civilized behavior:


In all our travels abroad and vacations in the land we are ashamed, time and again, for the way the average Israeli behaves, for their rudeness, [and] the lacking methods with which parents bring up their children, who [for instance] do not want [to eat] piles of food but rather just a little bit [, and] the average parent would yell: “take, take some more [food], maybe for later”. What a shame and disgrace!! […] It would be highly advisable that our self-righteous minister of education take care of introducing compulsory courses in manners and etiquette and civilized respectable behavior. This may perhaps help our children in future generations and improve a little our reputation in the world (Limon 2001a, #31).


            Some respondents indicate their care and involvement, as well as their moral advantage, by recounting an event in which they personally initiated an attempt to bring on a change. Sometimes such stories end with disillusionment and frustration – in which case, the speaker’s reproach and skepticism overshadow their message of hope. Other such stories end with the victory of the narrator’s positive attitude, which enhances their assumed status as a positive model to be followed by others. For example:

As a [woman] educator in the land, I [once] went on a trip with my class, they made a terrible mess in the bus, I left them [there] in the end of the trip to collect pieces of paper and garbage and throw them to the [garbage-] can – not, god forbid, to sweep or wash [the floor], What did I get from the parents? Complaints about abuse[.] So[,] does it [not] come from home? // But [on] a trip after [that one] the boys and girls were careful and did not mess-up.

AS/SA nº 16, p. 60

(c) Denial

            Stories presenting this attitude are often ambivalent and evasive, in oscillating between totally contesting the claim that Israelis’ standards of behavior are faulty, and recognizing the problem but trying to trivialize and belittle it. The narrators of this kind of stories feel compelled to restore their prestige as a cultural group, rather than to indicate their advantage, as individuals, over their peers. Apparently unwilling, or not in the position to straightforwardly condemn the collective Israeli identity, they speak in its defense and invoke national solidarity as a most valuable moral percept (on the economy of “embracement” versus “distancing” in identity talk see Snow & Anderson 1987). At the same time, they do not disavow the importance of being civilized, and try to show that Israelis do not deserve being stigmatized as uncivilized. These stories are told in response to stories of contempt and reproach told by others, and are intended to disprove the latter’s biases. As disputing such a prevailing common image of “the ugly Israeli” is difficult, the speakers seem to be pressured to invest even greater efforts to build their credibility as narrators. Doing so, they usually try hard to assume the civilized “voice of reason” of an “objective” impartial observer. Thus, although these stories convey patriotic sentiments, many of them still report the behavior of “other Israelis”, in the third-person, rather than tell how the narrators themselves, in first-person, behave.

        To rebut charges of violating norms of propriety by Israelis, several neutralization tactics are employed, ranging between denial of responsibility to denial of harm (Sykes & Matza 1957, Hunt & Miller 1997). One such form of neutralization is to absolutely invalidate the claim about Israelis’ alleged misbehavior by calling it prejudice, thereby passing the responsibility for it to the misjudgment of exterior agents, such as people from other countries. One such story goes as follows:

For your information – we arrived in New Zealand in 1979 on an Israeli passport with a 1.5 year old baby-girl on our arms – in 3 hotels they turned us down and [we were] told in so many words [that they] do not accept Israelis[,] not to mention the humiliating way we were treated in the airport. They put us in a tiny room and searched even the bottles of our girl. We absolutely don’t look like criminals and certainly didn’t seem threatening – it’s only a matter of anti-Semitism (Eichner 200, #70).

        Similarly, other stories refute accusations against Israelis by condemning the condemner, namely, by disqualifying those speakers who complain about them, blaming them with ulterior motives, self-hatred (even anti-Semitism) or self-flagellation. The following story, told as a direct response to a preceding “alienated” talk-back (Palter 2002 #42, cited above), concludes with such explicit charges, demonizing the former speaker’s bias by attributing to it a political overtone:

I just came back from Croatia 6 hours ago. There were 200 Israelis on the aircraft, [but] I did not encounter [any] undeserving behavior, even after people were dried out for 4 extra hours because of difficulties during landing. // It may be worthwhile to check the correlation between those who claim that Israelis behave as barbarians abroad and those who claim we murder children in the territories and say that suicide attacks are legitimate resistance. With one thing Jews are certainly blessed [, and that is] a great deal of self-hatred (Palter 2002, #65).

         Another manifestation of this attitude is found in stories which tend to universalize the problem of bad behavior, so as to “put it in proportions” and minimize its damage when it comes to Israelis in particular. This is often achieved through contrasting Israelis’ conduct with that of other national groups, and mainly Europeans, to undermine the belief that these nations are all that civilized. One such story, presented as written by an Israeli businessman living in Hong Kong, is intended to shake-up this provincial belief, as the speaker sees it:

[…] When will you understand? We are neither worse nor better than any other nation. I can tell here about terrible things [done by] tourists from Europe who destroy the [Far-]East. You think that because Europeans are polite on the surface they are angels, you don’t understand their culture. In many cases, as a businessman, I did not know where to bury myself [with shame] while businessmen in [evening] suits[,] with whom I was sitting in restaurants[,] asked the waitresses if they were willing to give them sex-services. The Israeli may be noisy and violent, but he does not hold to the European/American approach which views everyone who is poorer than himself as inferior to him (Limon 2001e, #30).

AS/SA nº 16, p. 61


         However, the attitude of denial finds its boldest expression in stories which totally reverse the argument, portraying the Israelis as the good behaved, and those who suffer from the rudeness of others. In several such examples, the narrator overtly identifies with the “Israeli identity”, to the point of volunteering her/himself as the protagonist of the story, rather than reporting and assessing the behavior of their compatriots. Here is one example:

Two months ago I was on vacation in Milan with my wife, my sister-in-law and a friend. […] We decided to go on a day trip to Venice. We came in the morning to the central train station, [and] waited politely in the line. We paid about 200 sheqels [about $45] for a first class return ticket. Second class is only 150 sheqels. When the train arrived, on time, all the people who were standing there chased it like animals, just like that. We, by contrast, did not push, nor galloped, nothing of the sort; after all we paid the maximum price. What do you know? We had to stand [on our feet] the whole ride (3 hours, just opposite the bathroom door), yes, yes, first class. Wouldn’t you explode??! We wanted to file in a complaint and get a refund, [so] we stood again in the line. Every minute there is someone else pushing the queue, “just one question,” sounds familiar? Most of them [the Italians] are talking on cellular [phones] on the streets, always loudly, and often cursing (a personal testimony). Now tell me, who are more shit? (Limon 2001a, #88).


         In this, as in similar such stories, the narrator is particularly mindful of providing enough evidence to establish that norms of civilizedness are deeply rooted in the routine behavior of Israelis, to whom he lends himself a representative example. Like cases of exaggerated speech-monitoring (Gee 1996), this narration reveals a declaratory adherence to norms of what the speaker assumes is believed by his audience to be the most respectable, prestige-endowing typical good manners: being polite, restrained and avoiding pushing and talking loudly in public. But it also reveals that these norms are neither entirely “naturally” internalized nor necessarily fully accepted by the story-teller himself. Several excessive characterizations (“waited politely”, “did not push, nor galloped, nothing of the sort”), as well as overstressed contrasts (“We, by contrast”) and explicit condemnation of “the Italians” – all these disclose the narrator’s efforts to portray himself and his companions as “civilized people injured by the savageness of others”, whereas some unintended remarks give away less noble motivation for their conduct (the excessive information about the “maximum prize” they paid for the trip suggests a different logic to frame the event, which is the logic of “the more you pay the better you deserve to be treated”, rather than that of a profound civilized disposition that prevents a person from chasing their seat in the train). Moreover, while on the content level, this story is about reversing group status, presenting Israelis as surpassing “the Europeans” in good manners, the concluding moral of the story is actually that good manners do not pay, if not entirely foolish and worthless: those who did not push were severely harmed.

         All these narration strategies suggest that this story is less about how good or bad Israelis really behave, and more about challenging the validity of the norms of “civilized behavior” as determining hierarchical boundaries between different groups of Israelis. While explicitly confirming the norms of “civilizedness” asserted by stories of other respondents, the story at the same time also disputes the view that these norms are obeyed exclusively by those “better people up in the culture scale”, on the one hand, and disavows their moral worth, on the other. Doing all that, the teller of this story takes position in a struggle over the authority to determine criteria of belonging and exclusion. What this speaker tells his audience is that he knows “how to be civilized” and the value attributed to this kind of behavior by certain people. He tells them that he can act this way if he so wishes, but not less importantly, he also tells them that he is not completely committed to this code of behavior, which is the cultural key to their social scale, and that he is in the position to choose his own version of it, or expose its faults.


            The abundant mini-narratives about how Israelis behave abroad, which the Israelis tell each other so often, make a sophisticated use of the accepted notions of “good manners” and “civilizedness”, thereby challenging the interpretation and applicability of these notions for the definition and evaluation of “an average Israeli person”. In this way, such stories serve as very useful tools in creating a struggle between different attitude groups, who vary in their respective degrees of distancing themselves from or identifying themselves with a generalized collective “Israeli person”, and fight over the right to condemn or justify it. While the stories of alienation mark their tellers as “deserters” who deliberately step out of the Israeli communality, the stories of denial mark their tellers as patriots who openly identify with this collectivity and speak on its behalf. Naturally, each one of these attitudes is formed as response to the other. Neither of them, however, aims at absolutely invalidating the very idea of a “civilized behavior” as the grounds on which a collective social identity may be defined, thereby securing a minimal common ground on which this identity struggle can continue. The high degree of similarities and repetitiveness, both in the reported events and in the rhetorical techniques, and the intensity of emotions invested in these stories attest to their effectiveness in shaping this dynamics of identity negotiations in Israeli society.

AS/SA nº 16, p. 62


1. Sources (in Hebrew)

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Anonymous 2001. “A Vacation in Greece: Either Pay Ransom for the Damage or You Do Not Take-Off”. Ynet 22.07.01.


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––––– 2001b. “Let Someone Take up the Glove” Ynet 17.07.01


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––––– 2001d. “Who Are those “Them”?” Ynet 06.08.01


––––– 2001e. “We Have no Other Land” Ynet 13.08.01


––––– 2001f. “There is Hope” Ynet 21.08.01


––––– 2001g. “Traveling as a Mission”. Ynet 28.08.01


–––––2003. “An Extraordinary Stupid Joke”. Ynet 7.1.03


Magal, Nir 2002. “An Israeli Ghetto in Formation”. Ynet 14.01.02


Palter, Nirut 2002. “The Ugly Israeli Will Get a Passport for One Year Only”. Ynet 24.03.02


Sade, Dani 2001. “The Ugly Israeli Is Back Operating in Greece”. Ynet 04.07.01


––––– 2002. “No Israelis Please” Ynet 11.12.02




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