In celebration of purposeful living

On the eve of its 70th anniversary, Israel is among the happiest countries in the world.

Israelis watching the IAF Independence Day show on the Tel Aviv beach  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis watching the IAF Independence Day show on the Tel Aviv beach
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the weeks leading up to Israel’s 70th anniversary, we’ve been bombarded by a slew of disconcerting – if not particularly surprising – statistics. The Economist ranked Tel Aviv as the world’s ninth most expensive city – pricier, even, than New York or Los Angeles, though, on average, Israelis earn less than half that of their American counterparts.
But before going out for a drink to take the edge off that unsettling news, be warned: our city that never sleeps is the second most expensive metropolis on the planet in which to buy alcohol. Besides, unless you’re walking, it may take an inordinately long time to get to the closest bar. Two months ago, infuriated citizens organized a “day of rage,” honking their horns in frustration over the incessant traffic jams they are fed up contending with.
They didn’t need the report just released by the OECD to be convinced that Israel has the distinction of suffering from the worst road congestion in the developed world. That study, and one issued by the International Monetary Fund, further warned that the situation is only going to get worse, slowing not only the flow of cars but also the country’s economic growth. Actually, in its recently released overview of the state of the nation, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies claims that the economic slowdown is already upon us, exacerbating the high levels of poverty and socioeconomic inequality that it found characterize Israeli society.
Making these disturbing revelations even more bothersome is that we have to digest them in an environment of ongoing investigations into alleged corruption at the highest levels, the looming security threat on both our northern and southern borders, and the incessant terrorist attacks claiming innocent lives, so commonplace that foreign media no longer feel compelled to report them. As if all this weren’t problematic enough, it seems that one half of the country vehemently disagrees with the other over, well, just about everything: treatment of asylum seekers, access to the Western Wall, settlement over the Green Line, the solution to our conflict with the Palestinians, the function of the Supreme Court. We’re even ready to come to blows over whether or not the corner grocery should be open on Shabbat.
It’s against this background that the most astounding statistic of all emerges. The United Nations recently issued its annual “World Happiness Report,” and guess what? Turns out, despite all this, that we’re the 11th happiest country in the world – as we have been for the last five years.
What’s the explanation for the “disconnect” between the harsh realities we contend with daily and the degree of contentment that fills our days? The answer? Purposeful living. However deep our disagreements, we feel a part of something grander than ourselves. We are engaged in realizing a dream. We are driven by vision. We are absorbed – albeit some more consciously than others – in fashioning this Jewish state of ours. And we feel privileged to be the first generation in 2,000 years to have the opportunity to do that.
Somewhere, deep down, we all belong to the Zionist enterprise.
And, it seems, the things that are most fundamental to that cause, that define us most essentially, are also the things that divide us most profoundly. What it means to be part of the Jewish collective. The connection to our ancestral homeland. The role of tradition in our lives and the life of our society. Am Yisrael. Eretz Yisrael. Torat Yisrael. Peoplehood. Land. Religion.
We’ve been arguing about these matters since Theodor Herzl first brought us together 120 years ago. And for the past 70 years, we’ve been pushing to shape Israeli society in the image of our personal understandings of them.
When one set of interpretations is in ascendance we feel elated. When another, dejected.
Some of us, then, will be on a high as we mark 70 years of Israel’s independence. Others downcast. All of us because we care so much – about the same things even, only differently. But being up about the way things are is no excuse for ignoring what still needs fixing. Neither should anguish over the challenges we’re still facing – whether imposed or of our own making – serve as an excuse for not celebrating all that is truly wonderful.
So while some of us will be waving lists of the amazing achievements we have to be proud about on Independence Day, and others an inventory of our deficiencies, we should all be waving the blue and white.
I know I will be. Not because Israel has evolved into the country I came to live in; no, it is still far from the exemplary society I’ve been struggling to create. But in the 44 years I’ve been here, there hasn’t been a day that I’ve regretted my decision to come. If I find it difficult to celebrate all that Israel is today (while aching for all that it isn’t), I still have more than four decades of purposeful living to be thankful for. And more to come. The flag fluttering in the wind will remind me of that as I sing “Hatikva” with all the gusto that the hope it champions deserves.
The writer is deputy chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency, where he has the privilege of working with thousands of others, volunteers and employees alike, who are as avid about living purposefully as is he.