In late October, The New York Times published “Whose Promised Land?” – a special feature on modern-day Israel. The authors of the article toured the country from Kfar Giladi in the north to Eilat in the south and discovered Israelis to be a much-divided people, nurturing resentments and wrestling with contradictions, “a collection of incompatible factions, each with its own priorities, grievances and history.”
One would think with the very real social, religious, ethnic and national tensions so avidly described by the Times, together with the ever-present security threats – the thousands of rockets aimed at Israel’s cities from Gaza and Lebanon, terrorists eager to stab and shoot, and Iran busily enriching uranium – that it would be logical to presume Israelis are a tense, worried and depressed lot. But it is not so.
On the contrary, by global standards the Israeli public is remarkably happy, with statistics attesting to this repeatedly produced by an international organization not renown for praising the Jewish state, the United Nations.
The UN’s annual World Happiness Report consistently positions Israel as one of the happiest countries on the planet. The most recent index is no exception: with the 2021 compilation of aggregate data taken over the last three years placing Israel in the twelfth spot in a list of 149 countries.
Ahead of Israel in the aggregate happiness index are Finland (1), Denmark (2), Switzerland (3), Iceland (4), Holland (5), Norway (6), Sweden (7), Luxembourg (8), New Zealand (9), Austria (10) and Australia (11). They are all countries that have the luxury of living in peace with their neighbors. That Israel would immediately follow them in the rankings is quite astounding.
Even more instructive is to look down the list to see which countries are less happy than Israel. According to the UN’s data, Israelis are happier than the citizens of the predominantly English-speaking democracies of Canada (14), Britain (17) and the United States (19).
Climate does not appear to be a determining factor, because Israelis are clearly happier than the citizens of our Mediterranean neighbors, Cyprus (39), Greece (68) and Turkey (104).
Israel also scores well in comparison with those who, like us, face a serious external security threat, such as Taiwan (24), South Korea (62) and Ukraine (110).
It is not about fine food either, as Israelis are deemed happier than the French (21) and the Italians (28) famous for their culinary excellence, though the evolving Israeli cuisine is truly awesome.
Nor is it connected to sports prowess, which undoubtedly brings much happiness to hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Israel is happier than Tokyo Olympic powerhouses Japan (56), Russia (76) and China (84), and in world soccer, where Israel’s team has a notoriously poor record, Israel remains happier than FIFA giants Germany (13), Spain (27), Uruguay (31), Brazil (35) and Argentina (57).
What is the secret of our relative happiness? In his recent book A New Israeli Republic (soon to be released in English) journalist and social commentator Ari Shavit points in a pertinent direction.
By comparison with other western countries, in Israel, the family unit remains strong, as does the sense of community and peoplehood, providing a sense of identity and belonging. While being more and more entrepreneurial, Israel, with all our internal fissions, still maintains a high degree of social solidarity, at the same time displaying a progressive tolerance and acceptance of diversity. And despite embracing dynamism, technology, innovation and globalism, Israelis tend to be grounded in their unique cultural and historical heritage.
All this not only creates healthy familial and social support mechanisms but assists in avoiding the alienation and atomization often associated with developed urban societies.
Emblematic of all this is the way Israelis engage over Shabbat dinner. Even the most secular Israelis are known to get together with family, and if someone has a serious partner, including gay and lesbian, he or she is invited too. According to this metaphor of modern-day Israel, young same-sex couples regularly joining parents, siblings and grandparents for the traditional Friday night meal is an expression of a society that somehow succeeds in fusing positive elements from the seemingly contradictory: The Middle Eastern with the Western, the time-honored and the ultra-modern, creative individualism with group solidarity.
Prosperity is also undoubtedly a major factor in Israel’s relative happiness. From a GDP per capita of $27,733 in 2009 to $43,610 in 2020, Israel has one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the developed world.
According to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita surpasses the OECD $38,093 and European Union $34,115 averages, and out of the seven global economies that make up the G7, Israel already outperforms Canada $43,258, the UK $40,286, Japan $39,539, France $39,030, and Italy $31,676, with only the USA $63,544 and Germany $46,208 ahead of us (and if current trends continue, Israel may soon be overtaking Germany).
Our GDP per capita might be lower than Scandinavia’s Norway $67,390, Denmark $61,063, and Sweden $52,259, but is counter-intuitively higher than our oil producing Middle Eastern neighbors, the UAE $43,103, Kuwait $32,373, and Saudi Arabia $20,110.
Once, when Jews immigrated to Israel from the West, they did so primarily out of Zionist ideology, as moving here demanded a drop in the standard of living. Yet, if the data from the World Happiness Report is weighed together with figures on GDP per capita, Israelis are today both happier and more affluent than many western countries that contain sizable Jewish communities. So, for French, Canadian and British Jews – and others too – immigrating to Israel may be the smart thing to do, ostensibly improving one’s chances of living a comfortable and content life.
Of course, like almost everywhere, Israel’s newfound prosperity is unequally distributed, exacerbating some long-existing social gaps. But the story of modern Israel is nevertheless one of irrefutable success, our remarkable collective happiness attesting to that.
The Times’ “Whose Promised Land?” depicted a people plagued by grievance and division, the authors discovering only a single relatively chipper individual on their journeys across Israel. In Eilat they came across someone who “seemed happier than most of the people we’d met anywhere else in the country,” explaining that “the sun and the sea helped.” But alluding to the Red Sea’s wonders is to miss the point. Just ask the inhabitants of nearby Aqaba.
The writer was an adviser to the prime minister and is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.