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A New ‘Commando Unit’ Faces Mission Impossible: Making Israeli Commuters Polite

Want to keep folks from shoving as they board the train? Send in the clowns.

Eylon Aslan-Levy
November 27, 2017
Courtesy of the author
The manners commando in actionCourtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author
The manners commando in actionCourtesy of the author

Maybe it’s the hot weather, maybe it’s the clash of cultures, and maybe it’s being surrounded hostile forces who want to kill you, but Israelis have honed a survival instinct of sharp elbows.

That can make riding public transport in Israel a stressful experience, as Israelis lunge to board their trains before passengers onboard even realise the doors have opened. Thankfully, Israel Railways is working to fix that: establishing a Manners Police to teach Israelis some manners.

For the last two weeks, eight troupes of comic actors have been patrolling train stations and carriages across Israel at rush hour, wearing brightly-coloured bibs that read “Sayeret Nimusin”, which in authentic Israeli style, literally translates as “Manners Commando Unit”.

In its latest campaign, Israel Railways has hired dozens of “clown doctors”—actors who visit hospitals to raise patients’ spirits—to encourage Israelis to be more courteous on public transport. Their job is to use humor and slapstick to alert people to let passengers off the train before boarding, to take their feet off seats, and not to scream into their cellphones.

“We don’t think people do it on purpose, there’s just an inconsiderate culture in Israel,” Naama Helbus, a marketing official at Israel Railways, told Tablet. She said that Israelis abroad usually adapt to the local custom, automatically standing on the right on escalators and not putting their feet on seats. But in Israel, the instinct is to behave a little more inconsiderately, and the train company wants to prove that things can be different.

If the Manners Police will succeed in creating cultural change, it’s because humor takes the sting of what might be seen as patronizing in a culture where people really don’t like to be told what to do.

But as the campaign winds down, Israelis are more concerned by whether the trains will continue running at all than whether they will have to barge their way onboard. The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party is threatening to storm out of the coalition if infrastructure works on the railway system go ahead this Shabbat. Israel Railways warns that if it can’t work on the tracks on Shabbat, it will have to shut the entire system on a work day next week, causing travel chaos.

With worries like that, perhaps Israelis can be forgiven for being a little pushy.

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.