Culture

Why the Beasts Fail to Understand Israeli Happiness

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A recent, much-read article by Tiffanie Wen in the Daily Beast tried to figure out “Why are the Israelis so Damn Happy?” It based itself on an OECD study of 36 democratic countries, which found that while Israel doesn’t score very high on some major parameters like housing, income, job security, and education, it does score high — eighth on the list — for happiness. (Israel also got a high happiness score on other studies, such as this one.)

Considering that Israel has also experienced far more war and terrorism than any other democratic country since its founding in 1948, that result may seem puzzling. Wen, in fact, claims that “war has quite a lot to do with it” and goes on to say:

Think about it. How would you act if you woke up every morning thinking that this day could be your last? Or at least took a moment to imagine how you would be eulogized at your funeral?…

The point is this: you’d enjoy the day you had. And if you continued to survive until the next morning, this daily exercise might develop into a mantra for how you lived your life. And you might bother to take that beach day, or spend more time with your family. You might grow a pair and launch that startup you’ve been thinking about (Boom: Silicon Wadi) or stop a beautiful woman on the street and insist that she have lunch with you….

First of all, there’s a measure of truth to this. It’s true that a sense of living with threats in the background concentrates the mind on the small pleasures, the good stuff. And Wen also notes a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that Israelis — who are more toughened by bad stuff — “recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more quickly than people of other Western nations.”

But beyond this limited measure of truth, Wen’s description verges on caricature. I’ve never known an Israeli in normal circumstances who wakes up every morning thinking the day could be his or her last. If one wants to understand why Israelis score high on happiness, “I could be dead any minute so I might as well enjoy myself” won’t get you very far.

Wen, an Asian-American from San Francisco currently living in Tel Aviv, acknowledges being “a non-Jew who doesn’t identify with the historic narrative of persecution; a non-Israeli who is unaccustomed to living under the threat of war; and an American that has come to ‘expect more and pay less.’…”

In other words, while it’s nice that she wants to try living with us, she’s not in a great position to understand a lot about the country. Even that phrase “the historic narrative of persecution” doesn’t sit well; while such a narrative exists in the Jewish ethos, so do a lot of other, more positive themes that hold more promise when it comes to answering the question Wen raises.

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As David P. Goldman recently discussed, the demographic situation of the Israeli Jewish population is little less than a miracle. The birthrate stands at 3.0 children per woman — by far the highest in the Western world, with the United States coming in a distant second at 2.1. And that figure of 2.1 represents what demographers call “replacement rate”; all other Western countries come in below replacement rate, many of them far below it.

Israel’s high rate is only partly affected by its ultra-Orthodox population, who feel themselves divinely commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply”; Israel’s secular-Jewish birthrate is still a very high 2.6. As Goldman notes, that contrasts with American Jewry, among whom only the Orthodox have high birthrates while all other categories (Conservative, Reform, secular) have low ones.

Clearly, something in the Israeli Jewish reality as a whole is fostering this very affirmative attitude toward life. It’s not likely to be — as Wen suggests — a constant sense that death is knocking at the door. People who felt that way wouldn’t be likely to make a point of having children — both because they’d fear not being around to raise them, and because they’d feel ambivalent and guilty about bringing children into a world that dangerous.

Instead, the answer is likely to lie in the general Israeli Jewish culture. As Goldman, again, points out, Jewish themes and practices are widespread in Israel and not only concentrated among the very religious. A study published last year found high percentages believing in God, believing that Jews are the chosen people, and so on. Considerable percentages of the “secular” observe the Sabbath and the kosher laws to varying degrees. The Bible is intensively studied in the “secular” schools.

It is a truism that the Jewish religion and ethos are highly affirmative of earthly life and invest it with great significance. Going back to the beginning in the Book of Genesis, God intimately interacts with worldly affairs and makes clear that the Jewish national project in the Land of Israel is endowed with holiness. Feeling that there is a God, that things somehow make sense, that children are a blessing — these are attitudes consonant with a sense of fullness, meaning, and happiness.

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To concretize this a bit, let’s imagine a typical Israeli family gathered for a Friday-night (Sabbath-eve) dinner. All three kids are there, and the parents, and also grandpa and grandma who, though they live in a different part of the country, were able to make it since the country as a whole is quite small.

Actually, it wasn’t certain that the oldest kid could make it. At nineteen, he’s serving in an infantry brigade and has been encamped on the Golan Heights. Amid the tense situation with Syria, he was granted weekend leave only at the last minute.

Although the family is secular — they rarely go to synagogue and don’t observe Jewish law as the Orthodox do — the father has said the Sabbath-eve blessing over the bread and the wine, and two candles burn in the background as the meal progresses. The subjects of conversation are thoroughly “secular” and ordinary, but the atmosphere isn’t.

Is there anxiety over the nineteen-year-old son’s army duty on the Golan Heights? Of course; in fact, the mother has had trouble sleeping at night. At the same time, there was never any question that he’d serve. Since his early teens he’s dreamed of getting into one of the elite units, and would have been painfully disappointed if assigned to a less glamorous force like artillery or combat engineering.

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Now imagine that tens of thousands of families are simultaneously having Sabbath meals. Indeed, for the Israeli Jewish population as a whole, the Sabbath — Friday night and Saturday — is like a weekly holiday. Though practices differ between the Orthodox and the more secular — from hours spent in synagogue to hours spent at the beach or in national parks — the family meal is a near-universal.

Does this mean all families are intact? Of course not; divorce rates aren’t as high as in other Western countries but not so low either. But even nonintact families are likely to have Friday-night meals, the more so because extended-family members are likely to be more or less in proximity.

Now further imagine that, in addition to these weekly events, the calendar is dotted with rather numerous annual holidays — both ancient Jewish and modern Israeli ones. A few of these are somber or mournful — Yom Kippur, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Fallen Soldiers Remembrance Day. Most — Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah (mostly happy), Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim, Independence Day — are joyous.

It’s sort of like having a weekly mini-Thanksgiving, plus quite a few full-scale “Thanksgivings” over the course of the year.

The point is not just that people get together and have fun, with an emphasis on family cohesion — though this is important. The holidays also embody meanings on a national level — collective memories and purposes that resonate from the ancient Jewish past to the Israeli present and future. In Israel, your chances — though it happens, of course, in individual cases — of feeling empty, adrift, and alienated aren’t high. It’s not that Israelis feel themselves to be under the shadow of death; it’s that they’re carried along by the richness of life.

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Strong family life, religious faith, a sense of being part of a collective endeavor that is worth striving and sacrificing for — all this is good for the soul. I’m not trying to paint a utopia; bad luck and troubles occur in Israel as everywhere else. But if war and terrorism were ever removed from the picture — and I see no signs of that dawn on the horizon — the Israeli happiness rate not only would not decline, it would jump to the top of the list.

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Check out P. David Hornik’s recent series on Abraham:

Abraham, Part 1: Are ‘Secular Israelis’ Really Secular?

Abraham, Part 2: God’s Gadfly or Meek Servant?

Abraham, Part 3: Do You Have to Marry a Jewish Girl?

Abraham, Part 4: Does Holiness Get Lost in the Fog of War?

Abraham, Part 5: Can The ‘Wild Man’ Ishmael Be Tamed?