Israelis Do Themselves In

Israelis are committing suicide. I’m not referring to decisions regarding the withdrawal from the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon or the West Bank, which some people view as such. I’m talking about the likelihood that Israelis may do their enemies’ job for them by killing themselves by cigarette smoking. They may think American Jewry will disappear because of intermarriage and assimilation, but that process is far slower than the one eating away at their lungs.

If you haven’t been to Israel, you probably don’t understand what I’m talking about, but anyone who has been there knows I am speaking the truth. You cannot go anywhere in Israel without being inundated by cigarette smoke. Friends of Israel like to talk about how brilliant and inventive Israelis are, their high-tech economy and all the rest. Forget about it. Israelis are interested primarily in two things — smoking cigarettes and talking on cell phones. It’s unbelievable. They smoke and talk on the street, in their cars (hands-free phones may be the only thing that saves the population from dying in car crashes before they get cancer) and in restaurants (where a pack of cigarettes and a phone are as much a part of the table setting as a plate, cup and silverware).

I don’t find anything amusing about smoking, but the cell phone obsession is actually comical. When a phone rings, a dozen people reach for their pockets. It’s like a duel in the old West. This is where that Israeli ingenuity comes in though, because the cell phones there are far more advanced than here (or at least more people have the fancier phones). Our tour guide, for example, had a phone that told the time in different countries and had different rings programmed for each of his family members. Yes, Israel has come a long way. I remember only about ten years ago when I was with AIPAC and someone from the office in Jerusalem walked around with a bulky cell phone pretentiously making calls in the street. Now everyone’s got a StarTAC. And, unlike the U.S., where it seems I have trouble calling my wife when she’s two miles away, Israelis can take their phones anywhere in the country and seem to have no trouble with connections and clarity. Their only obstacle is seeing the tiny numbers on those little phones through the haze of cigarette smoke. Of course, if it turns out cell phones also are a health hazard, Israelis are in even bigger trouble and may get cancer of the brain before the lungs.

Unless the researchers are blowing smoke about the dangers of second-hand smoke, the handful of Israelis who refrain are goners as well. During my recent visit, I sat in a non-smoking section at a restaurant. That in itself was something more rare than a Syrian-Israeli negotiating session. The no smoking sign was just above the heads of the people smoking behind and beside me. I asked the waitress if there was such a thing as a non-smoking section in Israel and she cheerily said we were sitting in one. When I gestured to the clouds around me, she said they didn’t enforce the policy after 10 p.m.

Anti-smoking crusaders who think they’ve made a dent in the wallets of the cigarette companies in the U.S. through their recent lawsuits are kidding themselves. The Israelis will happily keep them in business into the next millennium. Oh, you heard that Israel might also sue the companies for health costs? Don’t worry about it. The smokers will more than make up for any settlement.

Inadvertently, I did find one sanctuary in Israel. It certainly wasn’t a nature reserve, an outdoor café or the beach. It was the plane ride from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to and from Eilat. Fortunately for Israelis this flight is a mere 45 minutes, so they somehow survive. Of course the instant — and I mean the instant — they are allowed to do so, they light up and start dialing their cell phones.

How could people who are supposed to be so smart act so stupid? It’s not like the warning from the Surgeon General of the United States couldn’t be translated into Hebrew. Some people attribute the addiction to smoking to the level of tension associated with living in a country where terrorist bombs can blow up in markets, teenagers go to the army and war has been a fact of life. When pressed, however, most Israelis admit there’s no good reason for why they smoke so much.

I know American Jews are resented for trying to save Israelis from themselves, but maybe it’s time to invest some of our philanthropic dollars in an anti-smoking campaign. If it has any success, it’s likely to save more Israeli lives than anything else we invest in. And if we want to insure Israelis get the message, we need only call them on their cell phones.