Happiness and the wandering Jew

A full 36% of secular Israeli Jews said they would move abroad given the opportunity. About a fifth of haredi Israelis said they wanted to leave.

March 21, 2017 20:31
3 minute read.
DATE IMPORTED: January 09, 2017 The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, is illuminated with the col

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, is illuminated with the colours of the Israeli flag to show solidarity with Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Every year since 2012 the UN issues its World Happiness Report on March 20, World Happiness Day (yes there is such a thing). And despite all the stereotypes of kvetching Jews, Israel has ranked surprisingly high every year. This year Israel ranked 11 out of more than 150 countries.

But how do the findings of the happiness survey square with the results of another poll that seems to paint a gloomier picture of Israeli self-satisfaction, or lack thereof? According to a poll released on World Happiness Day by Masa Israeli – a non-profit with the self-proclaimed aim of “reinforcing individual Jewish and Zionist identities while strengthening the connection and sense of belonging to the people, land of Israel and State of Israel, as well as to the communities from which they come” – more than a third of secular Israelis would prefer living in the Diaspora.

A full 36% of secular Israeli Jews said they would move abroad given the opportunity. About a fifth of haredi Israelis said they wanted to leave, which was slightly lower than the national average of 27%.

The Masa finding is strengthened by other polls that have been taken in the past. For instance, a 2013 survey conducted by pollster Geocartography Knowledge Group found that 48% of Israelis would have preferred to have been born in the Diaspora and to have lived there.

One answer to the apparent discrepancy is that there really is no contradiction. Israelis who want to live elsewhere are not dissatisfied or unhappy. They are simply curious about the world beyond Israel’s constricting and unrecognized borders. Unlike other countries that are neighbored by friendly nations that enable the free movement of peoples, Israel is surrounded by hostile populations. Also, Israel is a tiny country with fewer professional options than other, larger, Western nations.

And Israelis face stressful security challenges.

Still, within Israel the factors that contribute to a subjective feeling of happiness exist. Gross domestic product per capita is high enough so that one’s basic needs are taken care of. Israelis can enjoy long, healthy years of life expectancy. There is in Israel a feeling of social support – that there is someone to rely on in times of trouble in contrast to countries such as the US, Britain or France, which ranked lower than Israel. Trust, which is related to the perceived absence of corruption in government and business might not be particularly high in Israel, but it is probably not much worse than in other Western countries. Perceived freedom to make life choices and to enjoy social mobility is relatively high. And Israeli society is a generous one with a high level of volunteering and philanthropy.

Another possibility is that the predominantly secular Israelis who say they want to leave also happen to be less happy. It just so happens that their lack of happiness is canceled out by the others. If this is true it seems to point to a crisis in secular Zionism. Perhaps, secular Zionist thinkers such as A. D. Gordon were mistaken when they believed it was possible to create a “new Jew” who is connected to the Land of Israel but who rejects Jewish tradition and old concepts of Jewish identity. An Israeli identity invented in the previous century that is estranged from Jewish tradition might not provide a feeling of continuity with the past and a commitment to the future.

To live in Israel and to feel both happy and committed to staying here one must feel a connection to the land and to the people. The challenges that face the average Israeli are greater than those that face the average citizen of a Western nation. We are still a nation embroiled in conflict and remain a state without clear and defined borders.

For people to develop and maintain a desire to remain in Israel, they need to feel that the issues they grapple with are being worked on by society. Their connection to Israel also needs to extend beyond just being the place where they were born or the state they found refuge in from persecution.

Ultimately, identity is an exceedingly personal matter.

But it is not solely as individuals that we grapple with the challenges of living in a Jewish state. It is a national challenge, one Israel clearly needs to work on.

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