There was laughter, smiles, and general happiness all around me – Jews and Arabs from religious and secular backgrounds enjoying the Passover vacation at a kayaking venue in northern Israel. Terrorism, politics and intra-population tensions were put aside, and everyone was having a good time. The scene reminded me that despite all of its many challenges, after it is all said and done, Israel is a great place to live.
And official statistics and polling data support that reality.
Let’s start with the World Happiness Index report, prepared by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. The report ranks 157 countries according to several criteria: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom of choice, and generosity.
According to this criteria, Israel is the 11th-happiest country in the world, which means Israel’s citizens are happier than those in the United States (13th place), the United Kingdom (23rd), France (32nd) and Italy (50th).
Given the rough neighborhood in which we live, surrounded on all sides by enemies who seek our destruction, it is remarkable that Israelis rank immediately after the people of Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden at the top of the list of the happiest in the world.
In addition, our country has now been named the fourth-best place in the world to raise children. The 2015 Family Life Index poll published by InterNations just released its findings, compiled after asking expat parents to rate the country they moved to regarding the quality, cost and availability of childcare and education.
Despite its economic challenges and all our complaining about our children’s educations, Israel was beaten by only Austria, Finland and Sweden as the best place to raise children. Canada ranked 16th and South Africa 18th. The United States and the United Kingdom didn’t crack the top 20.
One of the quality of life factors which often surprises those unfamiliar with life in the Holy Land is security and safety. The “crime and safety index” analyzes the level of security in a given city – a high crime index indicates higher crime rates, and a high safety index indicates a safe city.
The FBI defines the crime index as measuring murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. Among larger cities in the United States, the crime index tends to be higher than the safety index: Philadelphia 64.33 (crime) and 35.67 (safety), Baltimore 62.63 (crime) and 37.37 (safety), Washington 59.65 (crime) and 40.46 (safety), Los Angeles 54.24 (crime) and 45.26 (safety), and New York 50.89 (crime) and 49.11 (safety).
In Johannesburg, crime is a shocking 83.86 and safety a low 16.64. Even in London, where the safety index is higher than the crime index, it is pretty close: 48.37 (crime) and 51.63 (safety).
In Israel, the safety index is far higher than the crime index: Tel Aviv 31.43 (crime) and 68.57 (safety), Jerusalem a remarkable 26.38 (crime) and 73.62 (safety). There is no doubt that this internal safety – despite the country’s security challenges – plays a major role in Israelis being happier than the rest of the world, and in Israel being one of the best places in the world to raise children.
Israel certainly has no shortage of people and families that are struggling on economic and personal levels. Despite this reality, a report released recently by the Health Ministry reveals that Israel’s suicide rate ranks second-lowest among 28 European countries. It is also worth highlighting that the suicide rate among Israeli Arabs is lower than that of Jews.
What is the secret to this happiness? The news is filled with reports about Hamas drilling terror tunnels into Israel from the Gaza Strip, and the possibility of some form of escalation of violence from Hamas in the future.
Hezbollah continues to arm itself in the north and ISIS creeps closer and closer to Israel’s borders. The recent terrorist wave took a turn for the worse before Passover with a bus bombing in Jerusalem.
I believe that the next few weeks in Israel capture the secret to answering the question. As we move from Passover which the country truly celebrated collectively, we bow our heads to commemorate the Holocaust. But we do so with survivors visiting living rooms throughout the country to tell their stories – not just of their losses, but of their survival, and about the contribution which they made to the establishment and building of the new State of Israel.
We then move to the sadness of Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism, followed immediately by the celebrations of Independence Day and Israel’s 68th birthday. A few weeks after that, we continue to celebrate with Jerusalem Day, commemorating the day on which we reunified Jerusalem during the Six Day War.
These special weeks in the Jewish state capture the heart and soul of the Jewish people. They capture the reality etched into our souls that no matter what comes our way, we have the will to emerge even stronger and better.
Every person who lives in Israel plays a role in the building and strengthening of our relatively young state, and, by extension, plays a role in the continued survival of the Jewish people and in the influence and contribution which our nation gives to the world. I believe that this sense of purpose and meaning is what feeds the feeling of happiness and satisfaction among Israel’s citizens, despite the many challenges which we face. It is my hope and prayer that Jews around the world will recognize that Israel is not simply a haven for those running from persecution and anti-Semitism, and that living here is not simply the fulfillment of a biblical commandment, but that making Israel your home can also provide you with meaning, purpose and happiness.
The author served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party. He is currently director of public diplomacy in the vice chairman’s office of the World Zionist Organization. The contents of this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the WZO.