The Genius of Israel: The Sur­pris­ing Resilience of a Divid­ed Nation in a Tur­bu­lent World

  • Review
By – December 18, 2023

Writ­ten before the most recent events in Israel, The Genius of Israel offers an upbeat pic­ture of what makes the coun­try strong, despite its chal­lenges and prob­lems. While the authors — one an Amer­i­can polit­i­cal con­sul­tant and some­time gov­ern­ment advi­sor and the oth­er an Amer­i­can-born Israeli jour­nal­ist — do not ignore the dif­fi­cul­ties Israel has faced, they stress the resilience of Israel and its peo­ple and attempt to iden­ti­fy the rea­sons for its genius.”

Dan Senor and Saul Singer begin with the star­tling fact that Israel ranked fourth out of 150 nations in the most recent UN-spon­sored World Hap­pi­ness Report (by con­trast, the US ranked four­teenth). Despite some real prob­lems of social inequal­i­ty, and despite the stereo­type that Israelis con­stant­ly argue and com­plain, those sur­veyed expressed a gen­er­al­ly sat­is­fied view of their qual­i­ty of life. They suf­fered few­er deaths of despair” and had a high degree of opti­mism. These data were gath­ered between 2020 and 2023, coin­cid­ing with both the Covid lock­down and Israel’s long polit­i­cal stale­mate over judi­cia­ry reform. One won­ders how the respons­es would look were the sur­vey tak­en now, in the wake of Hamas’s attack.

The authors see this com­bi­na­tion of opti­mism and chal­lenge as the essence of Israe­li­ness. They tie Israelis’ strong sense of belong­ing to their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the nation, to the ethos of ser­vice instilled in them by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and to what Senor and Singer call the hevre: the net­works of com­pan­ions, friends, and rel­a­tives to which every Israeli is con­nect­ed. All of this leads to a greater sense of social cohe­sive­ness (gibush in Hebrew) among Israelis than among those in most oth­er countries.

Sev­en of the book’s thir­teen chap­ters exam­ine Israeli suc­cess sto­ries. Many of these focus on inno­v­a­tive efforts, expand­ing on con­tent in the authors’ pre­vi­ous book, Start-Up Nation (2009). Senor and Singer also include sev­er­al chap­ters that con­sid­er the inter­nal divi­sions in the coun­try. The Wars of the Jews” cen­ters on the his­to­ry and recent upsurge of dis­sen­sion. The Oth­er Israel” address­es the posi­tion of both the strict­ly reli­gious (Hare­di) com­mu­ni­ty and the Israeli Arab com­mu­ni­ty. Only briefly dis­cussed is the long polit­i­cal stale­mate that pre­ced­ed the reelec­tion of Bibi Netanyahu as the head of a coali­tion of con­ser­v­a­tive, nation­al­is­tic, and reli­gious par­ties. The authors seem to sup­port Netanyahu’s pol­i­cy on the judi­cia­ry — or they at least offer a ratio­nale for it that might sur­prise many Amer­i­can Jews.

Even if one is skep­ti­cal that every­thing is as bright as Senor and Singer claim, read­ing this book might serve as an anti­dote to the gloom of recent events. One can only hope that the authors’ take on Israeli resilience holds true in the face of the most intense hos­til­i­ties Israel has faced in near­ly fifty years.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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