Why Israelis are (relatively) happy
In an international survey commissioned by the United Nations and published by Columbia University, Israel was ranked as the 14th “happiest” country in the world. The survey – based on factors such as health, family and job security, and social factors such as political freedom, social networks and lack of government corruption, is no fluke, and it’s backed up by the behaviour of millions of Israelis.
Anyone participating in the Independence Day festivities in parks and nature trails would see that Israelis are very satisfied with their lot and achievements. Yes, we like to complain and criticize (these are Jewish national sports), and yes, there are plenty of dangers, but the bottom line is that most Israelis lead rewarding lives.
In contrast, if you read the newspapers or view news reports from most other media, Israel would appear to be a depressing and foreboding place to live. Even some major Jewish groups emphasize and greatly exaggerate the difficulties and confrontations that characterize life in the Jewish nation state, usually finding some alienated Israelis to provide authenticity.
Looking outward, for each of its 64 years of independence, Israel has been portrayed as facing imminent destruction, most recently from Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In this, our political leaders are responsible for overstating the country’s vulnerability, but Israelis have learned to filter out the hyperbole and live with the uncertainty.
In parallel, latter-day Jewish prophets of doom and gloom, viewing Israel from computer screens and short visits, such as former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, have risen to fame by predicting that the unresolved Palestinian conflict is certain to bring destruction. In contrast, the majority of Israelis who live with the reality on a daily basis know that there are no realistic solutions on the horizon. Certainly, Israel’s geopolitical situation is more precarious than countries with higher happiness ratings (Canada is fifth), but, as the popular song goes, we have no other Jewish homeland, and we’re making a reasonable go of it.
Indeed, the fact that we live in the Land of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, as a free and sovereign nation for the first time in 2,000 years is what this is all about – this gives life meaning for many of Israel’s seven million Jewish citizens. We have our differences, but this is only natural as we attempt to weave numerous diverse and strongly held beliefs into a coherent social fabric.
These differences are greatly exaggerated when they’re portrayed by “mainstream” writers who specialize in uninformed criticism. Some Jewish groups competing for funds, attention and influence join in by painting a highly negative image of Israel. In these public relations battles, Israeli society is falsely portrayed as “anti-democratic”, and dominated by “extremists” – totally distorting a complex struggle between strongly held traditions and interests.
For example, isolated incidents in which women were attacked by a tiny fringe in a Beit Shemesh turf battle – and which were clearly not ignored – were falsely turned into images representative of the entire society. And the head of one major Jewish organization even used the odious comparison of Israel to Iran in appealing for funds. Fringes cynically use exaggerated threats from other extremes to promote their own interests.
In contrast, Israel has done and is still doing an amazing job of integrating millions of immigrants from many different backgrounds. We have revived Jewish culture in a renaissance of learning and art that is unprecedented, including the regeneration of the Hebrew language, allowing everyone access to texts ranging from the original Bible to modern debates on philosophy and politics.
If Israel were really such a desolate and troubled place to live, the rankings on “happiness” surveys would be much lower, and a much larger number of talented Israelis would be leaving. At the same time, we know that our society is far from perfect (no place is), and we have our share of problems and challenges, both internally and externally.
But negative campaigning and gratuitous Israel bashing is counterproductive to efforts to overcome these challenges.