One of the social quirks of Israel is the lack of lines. It's been jokingly said that Israelis while waiting for something, don't believe in "lines," they believe in "pyramids" as they all try to funnel in. Well, that's not true. The only person who believes in lines in Israel is the guy who thinks he's at the front of it and that everyone else should get behind him. Take that same guy who arrives late to where several others are waiting to enter, and suddenly, he's unassumingly working his way around the edges to the front. Meanwhile, the lady at the "front" is playing defense and giving him the stink eye for his encroachment… until next time when she repeats his actions because she's in the same position.
Add to this the fact that most Israelis know that Americans or other Westerners, DO expect precise lines. However, even if offended or irritated, most foreigners won't argue or confront, even when someone works their way in front. This, to an Israeli mind, is equal to a green light. And so begins the social dance of unsuspecting travelers trapped in Israeli crowds. I have watched many a tourist become wildly offended when someone stepped in front of them at a register, only to be met with the puzzled Israeli look of "What's your problem? You're just standing around..."
Most of the time for Israelis, a line cutter's actions are not taken personally, as mean spirited or disrespectful. For example, the unspoken language among everyone at a gas station, cashier included, is that if I'm in a hurry and if you are moving slowly, I'm going to hop the line so I can keep moving. It's understood that sometimes I'm in a hurry too, so go ahead. If I'm not in a hurry or just slow, I can wait for others for a little, but that also has its limits. If there is a problem, simple body language to assert your presence is noticed and usually respected, even if it's with a miffed, furrowed-brow look of "excuse me?!?". Although clearly foreign for foreigners (pun intended), it's an assertive middle eastern cultural quirk but one that locals understand and actually works, once you get into the flow.
Years ago, while leading an Ezra Adventures group, we had just arrived to the Western Wall plaza checkpoint to find that there was only one security guy for the mass of people trying to get in. Knowing that my Western group would feel uncomfortable taking the Israeli approach to work our way forward in the crowd for fear of offending someone, we slowly held back and moved with the flow of people. Soon it was our turn to get our bags checked and to go through the metal detectors. An overwhelmed religious lady with 3 small children and stroller were going thru the process in front of us while we waited. Suddenly out of nowhere, an ultra-orthodox man with a long black coat, black hat, and long beard rushed up, clearly late for something, stepped in front of me. Without stopping, he proceeded to step thru the metal detector a half-second after the last child, as if trying to walk thru a crowded door. The security guard quickly stopped him, and loud words were exchanged. His best excuses were given with waving hands, but none were heard. With a firm hand gesture from the guard, he had to wait like the rest of us. Clearly agitated, the man took 2 big steps back from the metal detector to wait impatiently, stepping directly in front of me as if I was invisible. Not to be outdone, I too became irritated, whacked the guy on the arm with the back of my hand, and also had some face to face words. "I am standing right here with this group, we too have somewhere to go and you can get behind us!", I said firmly. A little surprised and taken back, his countenance dropped, he put his head down in a defeated manner and shuffled to the back of our group. The security guard, quietly eyeing what had just happened and was noticeably impressed, smiled and waved our group forward as he finished with the young family.
It was a simple but defining moment for me. As I got my group into the Western Wall plaza, I admittedly had a sense of personal pride. It was one of the first times that I can remember wanting to puff out my shoulders, beat my chest, and proclaim in my best deep and dramatic voice, "I belong here!" Yes, there are jerks in every crowd, and people are people wherever you go. But these are my people, my tribe, my clan. Assertive, emotional, driven, direct, yet hearts of gold when you take the time to know them. I can relate. I have a deep love for this culture and people and a sense of belonging in the land that I have with no one else on earth.
Inevitably, almost every time I return to the states, I inadvertently break this Western line rule. It has happened with waiting for the airport shuttle, at a snack shop, or gas station, leaving my unsuspecting victims tweaked and wondering who didn't teach me any manners. My 16-year-old daughter, who has joined me more than once in Israel and understands, enjoys reminding me with a chuckle, "Abba! You aren't in Israel anymore. You can't do that here!" Sorry, I forgot. I'm just away from home, just a Chocolate Fish out of water. Maybe that's the problem…
Doug Hershey is the author of Israel Rising, conference speaker and founder of Ezra Adventures, an Israel focused travel and education company. From years of hands-on experience, cultivating unique relationships in Israel and a love for history, Doug provides a rare perspective on the connection between the Jewish Scriptures and present day Israel. When he is not in Israel, he is speaking in churches and synagogues about the prophesied restoration of Israel.