Rude State


As if there weren't enough conflict in Israel already, the government is poised to ban smoking from almost all places open to the public. Regulations scheduled to take effect in June forbid smoking in medical facilities, shopping malls, public corridors and waiting rooms, lecture and celebration halls, performance spaces, cafeterias, and restaurants.

Since Israelis are not exactly punctilious about observing existing restrictions on smoking, it's safe to predict that compliance with the new rules will be spotty. Barring a serious, sustained enforcement effort–unlikely in a country where secondhand smoke must compete with terrorist bombs for police attention–the regulations will serve mainly to embolden annoyed bystanders.

Vindicated by the government's support, nonsmokers will feel more justified in complaining. Hemmed in by increasingly onerous restrictions, smokers will feel more aggrieved. The result will be more frequent and louder skirmishes between Israelis who feel they have a right to light up wherever they please and Israelis who consider smoking near someone else an act of assault, regardless of the circumstances.

One thing Israel does not need is more assertiveness, as anyone who has driven there can attest. Although I'm used to driving in Manhattan, I'm still jarred by the impatience and recklessness I encounter on Israeli streets and highways.

Drivers honk their horns and gesture angrily whenever they're frustrated in their attempt to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, whether or not the car ahead of them has anything to do with the problem. Their immediate response to an obstacle is to speed up and go around it, no matter the risk. Needless to say, turn signals are used sparingly.

Driving from Jerusalem to the seaside town of Netzanim during a recent visit, my wife and I passed numerous signs reporting the number of crashes on each stretch of highway during the previous few years. The warnings apparently made little impression on a taxi driver who sped past us and collided with another car as he weaved in and out of traffic.

Many of Jerusalem's sidewalks, especially on busy streets, are lined with metal and concrete barriers. These poles and pillars are designed not to keep pedestrians out of the street but to keep cars off the sidewalks, which Israeli drivers reliably treat as parking lots unless they're rendered inaccessible.

A similar disregard for rules can be observed in Israel's parks, where backpacking trails that are supposed to be kept in pristine condition are marred by discarded food wrappers and water bottles. Israelis seem to stubbornly resist the injunction to carry your trash out with you.

From a communitarian perspective, the squabbles over smoking, the aggressive driving, and the littering are all of a piece: They reflect too much individualism and too little social solidarity, conditions reinforced by the acquisitiveness of consumer capitalism.

A journalist I met during our recent trip argued that choice had corrupted Israeli society. A few decades ago, she said, there was only one TV channel, and in the evening everyone watched the same government-sponsored news broadcast; this shared experience brought people together and elevated the level of political discourse. Nowadays, a variety of programming options means that Israelis can watch whatever they like, and many choose to be entertained rather than informed.

Hard as I try, I cannot see more choices as a bad thing. In any case, forcing Israelis to endure the sort of privations that united them in the old days is not likely to make them more courteous.

Indeed, much of what Americans perceive as aggressiveness may be the result of living in a state that is constantly under siege. Politics in Israel, largely because it matters so much, has long been notoriously uncivil.

Still, there are some things the government could do to help Israelis get along better with each other. Instead of trying to impose one smoking policy on the whole nation, it could let business owners decide for themselves whether to permit smoking. The combination of clear authority and a diversity of choices would make conflicts less likely.

Better enforcement of the traffic laws would help raise the bar for acceptable behavior on the road. Similarly, better upkeep of public parks, perhaps through private management, might make people more reluctant to toss their trash on the ground.

Israel's problem is not an excess of individualism. It's a lack of respect for rules that are too often broken with impunity.