As Israel celebrates its 68th birthday today, even facing talk of a possible new border war, its people are among the happiest on Earth. A look at its founding document helps explain why – and helps show the power of a faith-infused cause, rightly understood.
Even as a confirmed admirer of Israel, I had never read “The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” (linked above) until I saw it in a full-page ad in the May 12 Wall Street Journal. It was a revelation.
For those willing to see, it has long been obvious that Israel is a remarkable oasis of human rights in a region notably hostile both to those rights and to Israel itself. It guarantees voting rights not just for Jews but for Arabs, including Muslims, and it protects most of the rights to speech and religious practice that are so central to Western, especially American, republics.
What I didn’t know is that it was founded that way. I had imagined that in its violent beginnings – Arab neighbors attacked it immediately upon the Jewish state being formally constituted on May 15, 1948 – it probably had started as an only semi-free state, aspiring to full republican rights but too beleaguered at the time to guarantee them.
But the Declaration says otherwise. The document says the new nation, from day one, “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” It appealed to Arab inhabitants by reassuring them of “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” Finally, rather than declaring hostility towards its neighbors, it said “we extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness.”
Israel has lived up to those pledges. Its courts feature non-Jewish judges. (Surrounding nations, of course, would never consider allowing a Jew to sit in judgment of any matter under law or equity – or, usually, even to openly acknowledge his own Jewishness without fear of arrest.) Its streets teem with non-Jewish merchants. And yes, the non-Jewish holy places operate freely – or, rather, freely for their own adherents, even to the exclusion of Jews and Christians.
Surely this openness, goodwill, and freedom help explain Israelis’ current happiness, as reported in the Wall Street Journal:
The World Happiness Report 2016 Update ranks Israel (Jews and Arabs) 11th of 158 countries evaluated for the United Nations. Israel also shines as No. 5 of the 36 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on the OECD’s Life Satisfaction Index—ahead of the U.S., the U.K. and France.
Interestingly, though, faithfulness seems to enhance Israelis’ happiness. The Jerusalem Post, reporting on the survey of happiness, found that “among the religious, 81% are very proud to be Israelis, compared with 50% among the secular.” And given a large menu of options, 21 percent of Israelis specify that their “historical connection to the Bible” is the main thing tying them to their country.
A far lengthier essay, bolstered by far more detailed research, could explore these findings. For now, though, let me hazard an educated guess, one that is certainly a fair supposition based both upon this survey and upon my own observations in my 2014 visit to Israel.
Namely, this: When a faith is non-coercive; when it is self-confident; and when, freely chosen and freely practiced in a free society, it also is a central part of one’s own identity, then that faith can help lead toward an enhanced feeling of fulfillment even amidst challenges that seem both foreign and frightening to those who observe from afar.
Happy Birthday to an admirable nation and an admirable people. May their happiness – and, even better, their joy – continue forever.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.