Woman jumping with sunset in background 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Repeated surveys suggest that Israelis are among the happiest and most
optimistic people in the Western world. One such study conducted by Gallup
ranked Israel in the Top 10 countries on the “happiness” list, alongside New
It’s not quite clear what weight can be given to these kinds
of surveys, but almost anyone I’ve met responds to these statistics with pure
The results are counter-intuitive. For a country beset by
such grave threats, so scarred by war and terrorism, and with such deep internal
challenges, happiness is not the first emotion that comes to
Israeli Jews are thought to take a certain pride in being
hard-nosed and cynical. It is part, perhaps, of living in such a dangerous
neighborhood, or of belonging to a people with a unique history of persecution,
that cheerfulness is often more associated with naivete than with a positive
attitude to life.
The disconnect is most telling when one compares the
sense of vibrancy and passion of Israelis on the street with the regularly
depressing headlines of the newspapers, or the downbeat analysis of Israeli
experts and spokespeople about the regional predicament. It is hard, especially
for visitors to Israel, to reconcile the dangers Israelis face with the mood on
a Tel Aviv beach on any given day.
There are numerous possible
explanations for this mysterious optimism. Some have suggested it is the result
of a certain fearlessness produced by decades of conflict.
as former New York Times
Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner did in a widely
discussed column last week, that Israelis have increasingly turned inward,
focusing more on their private lives than on the national drama – a version of
ignorance being the best form of bliss.
But perhaps a deeper explanation
lies in differing conceptions of the nature of optimism.
For many, the
optimist is one who can see the positive in any situation, who insists –
sometimes with the assistance of rose-colored glasses – on searching out and
focusing on what is good and promising in any reality. This brand of optimism
can be dangerous anywhere, but especially in the Middle East. It can promote a
distortion of reality and can lead one to misjudge or belittle the seriousness
of Israel’s threats. The result can be a form of hope that produces false
expectations, and may be a greater guarantee of future misery than of lasting
There is, however, a different understanding of optimism which
is more deeply ingrained in the Zionist mindset and in our Jewish tradition. We
are able to be positive and hopeful not necessarily because we think the present
story of Israel is one overflowing with good news, but because we know that the
full story has not yet been told. There is more work that we can do to shape the
next chapters of Israel’s history – the choices we make and the integrity with
which we make them matter. In this version, an optimist is not one who sees the
glass as half full but rather one who believes it may still be possible, with
resilience and patience, to slowly fill it.
This kind of attitude was as
critical to the early Zionists who built the state as it is to Israel’s
well-being today. It is what led us to concentrate on what could be built out of
the part of our ancient homeland offered in the UN Partition Resolution. It is
what produces the innovation and ingenuity Israelis are known for today – by
asking what can be created from what we have. And it is what should underlie the
pursuit of peace and security today – not a fanciful belief that some kind of
idyllic peace is easily within reach, but rather the sense of empowerment which
comes from recognizing that with wise choices and effective action we can make
our lives better, more secure and more peaceful, even if not fully free from
fear or danger.
This same kind of optimism draws its inspiration from the
President Shimon Peres is fond of saying that one of
the Jewish people’s greatest exports is dissatisfaction. But perhaps another way
to express this idea is that the biblical imperative of being “a kingdom of
priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19:6) compels one not only to ask how can I
be better tomorrow than I was today, but also to believe that constant
improvement is possible. For Judaism, and the Jewish story, it has never been
about arriving at the ultimate destination – that is, in the hands of the
Messiah – it is about recognizing our capacity to move, however incrementally,
in the right direction.
Anyone truly familiar with Jewish history, with
the miracle of Israel’s establishment, with the dangers we have overcome, cannot
help but be an optimist.
But this not because the outcome is clear or
necessarily guaranteed; it is because of the life-affirming power inherent in
the belief that where we are going is still, at least in part, in our
hands.Dr. Tal Becker is a senior fellow of the iEngage Project at the
Shalom Hartman Institute. Learn more about iENGAGE at iengage.org.il.