Sunday, May 30, 2010

Traffic Patterns

A couple of posts back, I alluded to the driving habits in this country--that perhaps they revealed something. Last night, driving home from a dinner with some former students, I was cruising along Highway One to Jerusalem, and at about 11 PM, I noticed a long line of cars crawling in the highway's two lanes in front of me. In the distance, a flashing red light; an ambulance siren sounded from behind--obviously, there had been an accident, and Highway One would be stop-and-go for a while. Fine: I had Brahms on my iPhone. Yet there seemed much more stop than go on the way to the flashing light, and I soon began to realize the problem.

This was exactly the place where Highway One's two lanes ran adjacent to the two lanes from Route Six, the central toll road, for a couple of kilometers--that is, the place where drivers from Six might join One, or vice versa, before the roadways split again. I noticed that cars from the two long lines behind me were pulling out in large numbers, joining Route Six to the left, and then speeding up to where One split from Six; that is, they would jump to the head of the line on One and force their way into the lanes where the people who had patiently waited their turns were queuing to get through. This meant that the choice for courteous drivers was either to let the person cutting you off get in, or plow on and risk spending days getting your car fixed, even if the other guy's insurance would eventually be forced to pay. Of course, all the line jumpers were getting in.

Now, you have drivers like this on, say, New Hampshire's Interstate 89 near my summer home. The name for them in the sociological literature is prick. But when you are in line for an accident in New Hampshire, perhaps two or three try to cut you off. Here, on Highway One, by my rough count, more than 70 cars pulled out of perhaps a couple of hundred in line. Even worse, a dozen Egged Company Buses did so. For those of us with shame, a wait that should have lasted 15 minutes lasted 35. By the fourth variation on a theme of Haydn I was furious.

TWO OR THREE out of 200? Deviants. Seventy out of 200 and virtually all the bus drivers? A culture. When my turn came to be cut I refused to give way. To hell with the paint job, I said, This is Kulturkampf. I put down my window and began lecturing the four young men in the offending Subaru about patience, and maturity, and "derech eretz." (I may have started the lecture by giving them the finger, but never mind.)

The response was curious and revealing. They did not get aggressive--at least not yet. They initially looked surprised, even a little hurt, as if it were me who had misunderstood them. Of course what they were doing was not exactly Kantian. Of course they were not doing unto others. But this is Israel, is it not? Would the country have ever happened, they seemed to imply, if ordinary moral reciprocity had been a governing principle among the favored, the ambitious, the strong? Besides, everybody does this. The ones who don't are friarim, suckers, naive. If everybody does this, how can you say this is not just preemption? I did not expect them to be left behind, did I? What's so wrong with bending the rules when the prospect of being left the victim of everybody else's aggression was so palpable?

Some will say this brazen self-centeredness is charming--a negation of the diaspora in the jargon of classical Zionism--or at least of a piece with the country's entrepreneurial culture. What if not a kind of healthy narcissism, a willingness to break ordinary rules, accounts for 4000 start-ups over the past twenty years? For what it's worth, the students I had had dinner with had just sold their company to Google, and were blowing their former (and now obviously superseded) mentor to a meal. There was nothing in the way they started up their company, or ran it, that suggested attitudes of this kind.

On the contrary, the ways of the greater world had sunk in: the business, one had told me, was an expression of ordinary decency, of "values": you treated colleagues and customers as if they mattered; everything else is one thing after another. At Google especially, where structure was uncertain, what you really had was a good idea and the promise of your integrity if you hoped to get something done. You did not learn such things from Israeli traffic patterns.

I KNOW IT may be a sign of an obsessive disorder to say so, but the evening seemed to me in microcosm the basic choice Israelis face, between global Israel, in which moral reciprocity is taken for granted, and Greater Israel, where the claim of "historic right"--of really, really wanting something--seems the only necessary justification. Anyway, I could not get out of my mind the hackneyed idea that Israel seemed on a very dangerous road. And that it mattered who would be driving.