Last night at 10:00 o’clock I went out for a walk in the city and headed over to Bograshov Street (pronounced by the locals as “Boograshov”, named after a leading educator in early Tel Aviv who changed his name to “Bogar” later in life to protest the naming of the street in his honor). Now, Bograshov is not a major thoroughfare, just a two lane street not far from the beach that is lined with shopping.  But it is a major hub of activity because within three short blocks it has six regular cafes plus one humus café, two ice cream cafes, and three bakery cafes – twelve in all, covering an enchanting variety of tastes: delicious salads, French pastries, oversized sandwiches, and humus so rich it bears no relation to what one gets in America.

Those familiar with me know that I can wax poetic about food so Tel Aviv is like Eden for me. But what makes Bograshov Street so interesting is that it isn’t unique. One can find many other concentrations of cafes all over the city plus individual cafes tucked away into the corners of small, tree-lined side streets. They are everywhere!

Yet what really interests me are the people in these cafes. The tables are filled with a few locals peering at their laptops, some couples whispering to each other, but often small groups of friends schmoozing and laughing while they sip their tea in glass cups and cappuccinos in ceramic mugs with cinnamon drizzled on top in intricate designs.

Tonight is a weeknight yet many of the cafe chairs are filled on Bograshov.  It’s late so patrons are talking quietly, gathered around the small round tables with little flickering candles. It doesn’t matter that it’s a workday tomorrow. They are out with their friends. And its not just young people. There are some middle aged folks out too. Some call this the Tel Aviv café culture, a social phenomenon that defines the city.

But there is something else going on here (besides the great food and coffee). We have a friend who lives in Haifa, born and bred there. When she comes to visit us in Tel Aviv and we take a walk along the beach promenade, she inevitably runs into friends she hasn’t seen in 20 years, 10 years, or maybe not since last week. She seems to know everyone. But then I have to realize this is still a small country. Everyone knows someone who knows someone famous. There probably is only three, maybe four, degrees of separation. People still regularly see their close friends from high school, and Friday night dinner with family is de rigueur.

Unlike America, where friends and family scatter to the wind and early connections become tenuous at best, there is only so far one can move in Israel.  The geographic footprint is small. So these formative relationships remain strong in an intricate web of connections that is reinforced by this very sociable culture.

What’s the result? Well, sociologists have probably written reams about this but one thing that strikes me is the effect on today’s politics in Israel. When disasters strike in America, we see it on the news but few of us feel it personally. How many of us were in close contact with people affected by Katrina in New Orleans or by the Northridge earthquake in California in the ‘90s? How many of us know someone killed or injured in Iraq? But when the rockets fly over the border from Lebanon or Gaza Israelis know someone close who is affected. Everyone has someone who was killed or maimed in a war or a terrorist attack – or who narrowly missed a suicide bomber or an explosive device. Israelis know that with tens of thousands of rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal aimed at Israel the next war will affect them personally. Or they will lose more people they know if another wave of terror starts.

When you dig deep into the Israeli psyche, I think you find fear, fear for themselves and fear for the family and friends they love in their large and close social networks. And they vote that fear.

So when I see groups of Israelis laughing and schmoozing at their café tables along the sidewalks I realize that deep down they know how tenuous this might be, how it can all be gone in an instant. This simply is not part of the reality of European or American citizens. It’s a paradigm gap in the way life is perceived.

This Israeli perception certainly results in the leaders they choose and the policies they pursue – and is an unbridgeable chasm that has been at the root of the failed and tortured negotiations for peace with the Palestinians. By no means is this the whole story but it is one of the factors that makes this situation so difficult.

Of course, much of this applies to the Palestinians as well – who in addition bring their own set of unique issues to the table – which makes it all even more complicated.