We have just returned from a most relaxing vacation in Lake Garda, Northern Italy…writes Michael Kuttner.
The distance from Israel to Italy is relatively short and a quick four-hour flight is no bother at all. One of the advantages of living in Israel is the fact that it is only a hop skip and a jump to major European destinations with no fear of jet lag. It is always amusing to hear Americans complaining over the fact that they have to face a twelve hour flight to the USA. When we tell them that traveling to or from down under entails not only a change of planes but that it also takes more than twenty hours actual flying time they look incredulous.
The distance between Italy and Israel is negligible not only in terms of kilometers but also in many other aspects. Italians have a joie de vive and outgoing attitude which resonates with Israelis. There is nothing more reminiscent of home than hearing and watching Italians engaged in loud and animated conversations or differences of opinion. Hand waving and exaggerated gestures seem all too familiar but that is what makes a vacation so enjoyable.
The other major similarity is the abundance of food and its central place in the lives of citizens. Jews in general and Israelis in particular are continually exposed to exotic gourmet meals which feature dishes from many countries adapted to local tastes and requirements. Generally speaking we are not a “booze” culture. Italians love their wines in particular and no decent meal is complete without it. Combined with extended family get togethers and strong family connections the similarities between both countries are striking.
On the weekend we strolled around the lakeside nearest to where we were staying and observed this phenomenon in action. Family groups consisting of grandparents, parents, children, babies and grandchildren together with family friends were all set up with tables and chairs on the grass and enjoying food and beverages. Not once did we see any drunken individuals or loutish behavior. We heard plenty of excited dialogues and discussions but nothing else to disturb the tranquil scene.
We had heard reports that Italians drive as though they are in the grand prix and road rules are works of fiction. This may be true in Rome and other major cities but where we happened to be the drivers were courteous, drove within the legal limit and in most cases stopped to let pedestrians cross the road at designated crossings. German, Austrian and Swiss cars could be seen in abundance and we all know how natives of those countries adhere to the rules. However even the local Italians drove in a civilized manner.
Another major surprise we experienced was the efficiency of the railway system and local bus services. Having been warned of the dysfunctional nature of the country it was a great relief to witness that the trains all ran on time and in fact were equal in reliability to the famed Swiss clockwork like punctuality. Bus and taxi drivers were most helpful in answering questions and providing assistance when necessary. Likewise individuals went out of their way in general to help when we were lost or needed advice. Tourists are obviously the lifeblood of the economy and this is something that Israeli bus and taxi drivers should learn from. Not once did we have to hang on for dear life as a bus driver accelerated as though his life depended on it.
Local television stations concentrated almost exclusively on domestic news and the only mention of Israel was accompanied by scenes of mayhem from Gaza. As usual bad news was all the locals could learn about the situation. Having said that we never experienced any negative feedback from Italians once they found out we were visiting from Israel and in fact their reactions were most warm and friendly.
Quite frequently pundits compare the Italian and Israeli political situation and draw negative conclusions. Elections in Italy had been held already back in March and by the end of May the country was still without a functioning permanent government. Finally the two parties which had received the most votes entered a coalition agreement only to have their choice as Finance Minister rejected by the President. The reason apparently stemmed from the fact that he was a Euro skeptic and this was something unacceptable to both the pro EU President and the unelected bureaucrats based in Brussels.
Here was a classic example of how the EU works these days whereby the will of the majority of Italian electors was ignored. No wonder there is a gathering revolt in many EU countries against this new form of dictatorship. Making matters even worse were reported comments by German officials who admonished the Italians to work harder and complain less. Needless to say this went down like a lead balloon and furthered soured relationships.
Adding insult to injury the Italian pro EU President then appointed a so-called technocrat to lead an interim administration until new elections could be organized. There was no way Parliament was going to agree to this dubious maneuver even though the established defeated parties were agreeable. Amidst continuing uproar and mayhem the two coalition partners finally came up with another candidate for Finance Minister and the President caved in. Italy is in for more political volatility because voters are fed up with past corrupt parties, the EU in general with its open border policies, the influx of illegal economic migrants and dictation from Brussels.
Since the end of the war Italy has had 62 Governments which makes one wonder if the country is ungovernable. Massive reforms in the political system seem long overdue.
In comparison Israel is an island of sanity. Despite the same propensity for differing opinions resulting in splinter minor parties, coalitions and endless debates our Knesset is a model of efficiency and in the end gets the job done. Governments get formed within a reasonable time and usually last for a reasonable period even if not the full term. Despite all challenges of war, terror and boycotts, Israel has emerged stronger and more resilient.
That is a lesson the Italians should learn and benefit from.
Michael Kuttner is a Jewish New Zealander who for many years was actively involved with various communal organisations connected to Judaism and Israel. He now lives in Israel and is J-Wire’s correspondent in the region.