Inside the Israeli Psyche: 5 Hebrew Sayings That Say It All
A window into how Israelis are thinking in the wake of Hamas' massacre on October 7th.
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A good many authors, pundits, scholars, and even psychologists have tried to identify the factors which account for the outstanding and unique attributes of Jews — and particularly Israelis.
In the book, “Genius and Anxiety,” distinguished British writer Norman Lebrecht attempted to solve this mystery by examining Jewish lives across nearly two centuries. He discovered certain common characteristics, but wasn’t able to identify a magic ingredient.
Israeli entrepreneur Inbal Arieli, in her book, “Chutzpah,” ascribed Israel’s success as an epicenter of technology innovation to that well-known Israeli characteristic. Nili Peretz, another sabra author, calls it “Positive Chutzpah” — a mindset that transcends the boundaries of culture and gender, providing a trigger for innovation that pushes many Israelis to discover their extraordinary potential and positively impact the world.
In 2003, Donna Rosenthal published her book, “The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land,” which paints a picture of how Israelis — “who order Big Macs in the language of the Ten Commandments” — look at themselves.
Similar to Rosenthal’s approach, I believe the more compelling path to understanding the Israeli psyche is from Israelis themselves — by identifying and analyzing their sayings, expressions, and catchphrases.
Here are five of them, each portraying a different nuance of the complexities that are Israeli culture, society, and history:
1) ‘It’s crap, but it’s our crap.’
In Hebrew: זה חרא אבל זה החרא שלנו
Transliteration: zeh charah aval zeh hahcharah shelanu
The word charah (חרא) is actually Arabic, like many such words which modern-day Hebrew borrows, such as sababa (cool) and achlah (great).
Charah can mean “bad,” “evil,” or “disgusting,” but in this context it’s used to mean “crap” (or, if you’re feeling more vulgar, “sh*t”).
This Hebrew saying offers two glimpses into the Israeli psyche: first, that Israelis are notorious complainers, so quick to point out how lackluster certain aspects are in Israel, as if this country is the only one which has such issues.
But what makes this saying so poignant is its second part: that, at least, it’s our crap — a testament to the thousands of years during which Jews were visitors in other people’s countries, and had no “control” of these other countries “crap.” No real say in the matter, no genuine invitation to attempt to solve or improve it, yet often to blame for it.
Hence why, when Israelis are faced with the prospect of leaving Israel for the so-called greener grass, many elect to stay in Israel because they’d rather be “in control” of our own crap (i.e. war and terrorism, high cost of living, relatively low salaries, lack of natural resources, a small amount of land for a swelling populace) than be a guest to someone else’s.
2) ‘We got through Pharaoh, we’ll get through this too.’
In Hebrew: עברנו את פרעו, נעבור גם את זה
Transliteration: avarnu et pharaoh, nah’avor gahm et zeh
Israelis have been through the ringer — and then some. Just think about my dad’s cousin, Gabi, who moved to Israel with his Romanian family in 1960, at the age of 12, and has now lived through six full-blown wars, two intifadas (Palestinian uprisings), and several military operations.
“But we got through Pharaoh, we’ll get through this too,” they say — a nod to the Israeli resilience, which is summed up so accurately by the co-authors of “ISResilience,” Michael Dickson and Naomi L. Baum. They wrote:
“By any rational analysis, Israel should not exist at all, let alone be a thriving powerhouse of a country. Yet as we rediscovered via the personalities we met on this journey, Israel defies reason, logic, and historical precedent.”
What’s more, this saying was turned into a song by Israeli musician Meir Ariel (of blessed memory), and it later became one of his greatest hits. Here are some of the lyrics, translated from Hebrew:
Look, there are sometimes situations, you know, that a person meets a person.
They exchange opinions. And before you know who and what, they're on their way.
And before you know what and who...
So I ask myself what... what actually I get out of all this... but we got through Pharaoh, yes, so we’ll get through that too, friends.
3) An Utter Mess
In Hebrew: בלאגן
The infamous Hebrew word “balagan” is the state for which a preordained order of things does not exist.
Balagan is a term commonly used in everyday Israeli life: from waiting in the supermarket line, to riding on a bus, to visiting a governmental office, to participating in a political protest, to Israeli children in a typical playground, to fighting a war. There is always balagan.
“While this may seem chaotic to an outsider, in Israel, it is simply the way social interactions operate,” wrote Inbal Arieli, an Israeli businesswomen and author. “Balagan encourages adapting and adopting new and unforeseen parameters. It encourages both us and our children to continuously reconsider our deepest biases and assumptions regarding the ‘organization of things,’ and allows us to consider alternative possibilities.”1
As such, balagan is central to the Israeli way of life — disruptive, often rude — because it doesn’t follow conventions. It encourages kids to understand there’s no predetermined order, no single way to do things.
In Arieli’s view, balagan promotes in both children and adults creativity, problem-solving, and independence. To put it another way: “Social situations laden with ambiguity help develop a child’s problem-solving skills, not to mention their self-confidence and ability to persist in the face of adversity.”
4) All Together Now
In Hebrew: גיבוש
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the UK’s late chief rabbi, once spoke of a conversation he had with the British historian Paul Johnson, a Catholic who wrote “A History of the Jews.” Sacks asked Johnson what struck him most about Judaism as he was writing his book.
“There have been, in the course of history, societies that emphasized the individual—like the secular West today,” said Johnson. “And there have been others that placed weight on the collective.” Judaism, Johnson continued, managed to give “equal weight to individual rights and collective responsibility.” This balancing act was “a reason why the Jews were able to keep their cohesion in the face of intolerable pressures.”
There is a word in Hebrew for this ethic that doesn’t exist in English: “gibush.”
Gibush is both an act — bonding with an informal group or team — and an ideal that Israelis inhale from a young age: from youth scouts (which most young Israelis participate in), to classrooms (where creating a sense of cohesiveness in homeroom classes is no less important than educational objectives), to the pre-army gap year community service programs, and most intensely, in military service itself.
It was this “gibush” that has burst forth in the nearly three months since October 7th.
As the Israeli military was feverishly trying to understand what was transpiring on October 7th, they started calling up reservists, but assumed that not all of them would report for duty. After all, reservists have jobs and families, often with young children, and many are often living or traveling overseas. But in some units, 120 percent of the reservists showed up.
They came so fast, and in such numbers, that the military did not have enough food and or equipment for them. The soldiers started texting their families asking for supplies, including everything from phone chargers and socks, to high-quality helmets, tourniquets, and bulletproof ceramic vests.
Meanwhile, civilian blood drives and relief efforts have been so swamped with volunteers, they had to scramble to match them with the dire needs to be filled.
5) ‘We don’t have another country.’
In Hebrew: אין לנו ארץ אחרת
Transliteration: ein lah-noo eretz ah-cheret
Dan Avnon, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described Hamas’ October 7th attack as one that hit at the very core of Israeli identity, leading to a generational trauma shared by many Israelis and Jews worldwide.
“Jewish Israelis are committed to the existence of the state. Right, left, peace, radical, messianic or whatnot, at our core we believe that if we do not have a state, then we will be wiped out,” he said.
It’s a sentiment that is best described by the Hebrew saying: “We don’t have another country.” Israelis use it not just in times of war, though.
In March of this year, for example, when more than 80,000 anti-government protesters gathered outside the Israeli legislature in Jerusalem, IDF chief of staff turned politician Benny Gantz said: “We don’t have another country, we don’t have another homeland. We don’t have another path, only a Jewish and democratic country.”
“In recent months, it seemed that we had forgotten who we are as a people,” wrote author Laura Ben-David. “If history is any indicator, Israeli society knows how to put aside differences in a crisis. We are now facing a crisis the likes of which most citizens have never seen. This isn’t an ‘operation’ — this is a war. One thing is certain: Israelis are nothing if not tough and resilient. We will fight with everything we have — because we must. As the famous song goes, we don’t have another country.”2
“Chaotic Order.” Medium.
“Instead of dancing with the Torah, we are under attack.” Forward.