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Making Peace in Israel: a 'Miss Manners' Class for the Brash

Tami Leibovitz teaches politeness in a nation where rudeness rules

What's most frustrating about life in Israel?

In a recent poll, Israelis chose not the conflict with Arabs but the "Israeli mentality."

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Citizens of this young nation often admit to being rather brusque in their social discourse and to generally practicing mutually offensive behavior.

One woman is working on that. Last year, Tami Lancut Leibovitz opened the Litam Manners school in Tel Aviv, the culmination of her 20-year mission to help Israelis become more polite.

She's up against a well-entrenched foe. Consider the example set by "Popolitica," one of the hottest programs on television.

A "McLaughlin Group" with too many guests, the show features as many as 12 Israelis sitting around a table to "debate" the issues of the day. The guests shout and lob insults, and generally don't let anyone - including the show's host - get in more than one sentence at a time.

Perhaps the pop-politics bazaar is so popular because it mirrors Israeli society itself - the Knesset, or parliament, often looks the same.

But the Miss Manners of Israel has been gaining ground. With a weekly late-night radio show, a newspaper column, and an encyclopedic Hebrew book on manners in its fourth printing - and another one for children - Ms. Leibovitz has become Israel's Judith Martin and Martha Stewart wrapped into one.

"Manners for me is a lot of common sense," says Leibovitz, impeccably dressed in a suit that she carries like a fashion model. "Manners is something that is very natural and very simple."

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But maybe not so simple for the rest of the nation.

First-time visitors are often surprised to hear people shouting at each other in normal conversation. "No" is often expressed with a dismissive cluck of the tongue. With the meteoric rise in cellular phones, phone companies issued a warning to their users: Remember to turn off your phone in theaters and at funerals.

State employees have a wide reputation for rudeness. Among those who have complained of ill-treatment as soon as they arrived at the airport near Tel Aviv was singer Elton John, who cut short his trip after a few hours.

If etiquette has never been a top priority in Israel's 50-year history, it's often said that there were always bigger things to worry about - like national survival. Decades ago, Jewish immigrants coming from all over the world didn't have a common culture by which to judge what was socially acceptable.

But running even deeper than that, Zionist writers had philosophized that Israel should be a place for creating a new national Jewish identity: one that would be assertive, direct - and devoid of the European etiquette that seemed superficial in the wake of the Holocaust.

"The problem of Jews until 1948 was that we were not aggressive enough," says Netiva Ben-Yehuda, an expert on Israeli culture and the granddaughter of the man who resurrected Hebrew as a modern language. After that, she says, "We were crazy about proving that we are forceful."

National consensus over proper behavior and cultural norms, she says, takes time.

But Leibovitz says Israel can't wait too long. Its denizens have more international exposure today than ever before, traveling abroad for business and pleasure. But it is still a country where people have to live in the shadow of war and terrorism, and where almost everyone serves in the army, creating a society with a high proportion of people who have been trained to address each other like drill sergeants.

"In the army, it's a culture of yelling, of commanding, of aggressiveness," Leibovitz says.

On the more dangerous side of such aggressiveness, Israelis are notoriously bad drivers - many say because no one wants to be the freier, or sucker, and let someone else pass.

As a result, more Israelis die each year on the road than in terrorist incidents, leaving Israel with one of the highest accident rates in the Western world.

In more positive terms, some say there is a sense here that all Israelis are really part of one big family, making it all right to speak to a perfect stranger as one would to a brother or sister. But the public arena is no place for that approach, Leibovitz says.

"I never ask, 'How much do you earn?' " Leibovitz tells an audience of Israelis at a one-night crash course on the art of entertaining and polite conversation. The audience cackles, enjoying a self-deprecating snicker over how often Israelis ask such questions.

In addition to short lectures like this one, she runs specialty courses for a wide variety of Israelis - from politicians and executives to children and teenagers. Most popular is her three-month "finishing touch" course and a longer, comprehensive course for people who want to become professional manners and etiquette consultants.

One woman who studied in that class has brought what she learned back to El Al, Israel's national airline.

Senior Purser Nitza Ram-HaLevy, who has been instructing El Al staff for 12 years, learned how to give attitude makeovers to new flight attendants.

"When they first meet a passenger, and they have to tell them where to go, they don't look them in the eyes. They bark and point," Ms. Ram-HaLevy says. "Instead of this, we teach them to look and smile, to point with an open hand."

Many other Israeli firms having to compete in the global economy are looking to internationalize their manners - and bringing Leibovitz lots of business. Indeed, a lot has changed since the days when the only people who were seen as needing to have polished Ps and Qs were diplomats.

For years, Leibovitz's mentor, Hannah Bavly, was in charge of that for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. But when Ms. Bavly passed on a few years ago, Leibovitz inherited all her lecture material and decided to expand the curriculum for courteousness to the public at large.

"I feel that I'm going to change the culture in Israel," Leibovitz says, as she steps into her new Alfa Romeo - but not before politely opening the door for her guest first.

"People know what the real Israeli mentality is, and they want to change it. They want manners. Already, there is a change. Twenty-two years ago, I didn't have any work."

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