A time to plant, a time to pluck up

July 20, 2000|By Helen Schary Motro

TEL AVIV -- The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv recently reported that some tourists to Israel are objects of a small-time swindle by one of the oldest and largest fund-raising organizations in Israel, the Jewish National Fund.

It alleged that the organization has been fraudulently charging $10 for the privilege of planting a sapling in Jerusalem soil with one's own hands only to uproot the trees the next day in preparation for the next crop of gullible suckers. The New York Times then pictured a Pennsylvania family holding a sapling in one hand and a JNF certificate in the other, planting their personal little trees, which perhaps were doomed to last no longer than overnight.

The scandal spread like wildfire. Some JNF personnel were fired, and a retired judge has been appointed to investigate the allegations.

If it weren't so sad it might be funny.

To those familiar with the Israeli ethos of conduct and their generalized disdain for the integrity of outsiders, the news, however titillating, was no shock. Both the Israeli newspaper and the Times noted that a classic 1960s satire movie had lampooned the current scandal decades before it actually happened. But neither mentioned that the film itself caricatured tourists as ridiculous and outlandish.

The scandal raises the deeper issue of exploitation of the Jewish Diaspora -- the conviction that if not an inalienable right, it constitutes at worst an excusable social blunder. The feeling persists that Israelis have a green light to milk tourists because of their own "sacrifice" of living in the tougher conditions of the Middle East, an approach sometimes colored by resentment and jealousy of what is naively perceived as the "easy life" led by non-Israeli Jews.

"Their kids don't have to go to the army" or "Look at the tax rates we have to pay" are examples of the non-sequitur justifications Israelis offer for giving tourists a sleight of hand. Tourists routinely pay higher prices at shops, at hospitals, hairdressers, restaurants and for taxis.

Although visitors around the world are objects of derision and targets for being ripped off, the Israeli attitude toward Jewish tourists is a more complicated one.

Perceived as benefactors, supporters, family and brethren, Israelis do not have a neutral attitude toward Diaspora Jews on a visit to the Holy Land. If often genuinely welcomed, they are never quite taken seriously as equals. In light of the enormous economic injections world Jewry continues to donate to Israel, the current scandal has the unsavory element of biting the hand that feeds you.

It may be that the Israeli treats the tourist no worse than he would treat his neighbor; it's just that with the foreigner he feels he can get away with more.

The pattern may be an extension of the general pastime of trying to get away with whatever you can and making a fast buck in the bargain. From early childhood, Israelis are accustomed -- even encouraged -- to act with impunity. Parents set few boundaries on children's conduct, casting a blind eye on transgressions of behavior.

Cheating in the school system is endemic from the early grades. Refusing to share one's homework or test answers results in ostracism by the group, and teachers are viewed as the "other," whom it is acceptable and expected to hoodwink.

This attitude continues into later life. Crossing the line, calling the opponent's ball out, jump starting the gun -- all par. From the president on down, the long list of politicians implicated in financial irregularities is not an aberration. Political hanky-panky is exposed because someone stands to gain by the wrongdoer's downfall, not because it oversteps accepted behavioral norms.

The name of the Israeli game is a blend of dog-eat-dog and survival of the fittest. And if there is no compunction against double-crossing your compatriots, how much less restraint is put on taking a little pinch here and there from those fat tourists who are so rich anyway they wouldn't notice a little loss?

American Jews arriving with a positive attitude are gullible and easily duped. They are also perceived as dumb enough to forgive anything. But that is the wrong conclusion.

Americans are trusting, open and ready to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt. Yet once fooled, they are nobody's fool and do not take kindly to folks who think they can get away with giving them the short end of the stick. After all, it was an American -- Abraham Lincoln -- who coined the phrase ... "you cannot fool all the people all of the time."

Helen Schary Motro, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, is an American attorney and writer living in Israel.

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