One Family, One Nation

REVIEW: ‘The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World’ by Dan Senor and Saul Singer

People supporting families of the hostages have their backs painted with the words "bring us back" during a protest on Oct. 28, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
October 31, 2023

As their book The Genius of Israel went to press, authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer composed an authors’ note, acknowledging that events in Israel at the moment may have superficially seemed to undermine the arguments they present. After all, the book describes the social strength of the Jewish state, what is called in its subtitle "the surprising resilience of a divided nation in a turbulent world." Yet to many, Israeli society appeared on the verge of breakdown; a deep disagreement over the future powers of the Supreme Court seemed to reveal larger fissures, with tens of thousands protesting the government every Saturday night, and massive counter-protests from those supporting the governing coalition. "We understand," they reflected, that "the reader may wonder how Israel’s slow-motion political train wreck squares with our claims regarding the health of Israeli society. Fair question." Yet they insisted that their book revealed the deeper unity of this fractious country. In a chapter titled "The Wars of the Jews," the authors further explained that beneath the surface, "Israeli society is like a very strong rubber band. However stretched it becomes, there are strong forces pulling it back together."

As even Yom Kippur—usually the quietest day of the year—was marked by vituperative shouting about religion in the streets of Tel Aviv, one might have been forgiven for responding to Senor and Singer with skepticism. Then, two weeks later, in response to the worst attack in the country’s history, Israeli society united, entirely vindicating the thesis of this brilliant book.

The question with which Senor and Singer begin is pithily put: "Why are Israelis so damn happy?" This query was first posed by the journalist Tiffanie Wen, when she noticed that Israel ranks consistently close to the top among countries when it comes to the happiness of its citizens, even as these very same citizens remember, every year, relatives who have fallen in the country’s many wars, and almost every Israeli knows someone murdered in a terror attack. While their previous book—the hugely influential Start-Up Nation—focused on how Israeli life cultivates creativity in the technological and financial sectors, Senor and Singer now eloquently outline the emotional aspects of Israeli life. They explain how a society marked by its constant confrontation with its enemies, and by the angry exchanges of its democratic debates, is actually one of the most contented countries on the face of the earth.

Like most ingenious explanations, it is only obvious once it is given. Genuine joy in life comes not from hedonism or escapism but from a sense of being part of, and contributing to, something larger than one’s self. In contrast to the atomistic sense of identity cultivated in much of the Western world, and the epidemic of loneliness now impacting so much of America, Israel has succeeded in creating a culture in which individuality is celebrated but is always placed within the context of family, community, and country.

How does it do this? The answer begins with family. The authors emphasize the way in which Israeli society cherishes children, a fact reflected in a birthrate far beyond replacement, even among the secular members of Israeli society. This, in turn, impacts the culture of the workplace, as employers are incredibly understanding of the parental responsibility of their employees. Offices in Israel, the authors show, are marked by a policy of "tolerating toddlers"; they take note of the hilarious moment in which comedian Conan O’Brien, visiting the site where "Waze" was developed, sees a child playing on the floor, and accuses the tech innovators of engaging in child labor. Whereas the usual conception of a "work-life balance" assumes that these two realms "are in perpetual conflict," in Israel the relationship between work and life is more of marriage, one merging with the other. This, in turn, allows Israelis to see each other as one larger family; it is often noted that only on flights to Tel Aviv would a passenger hand a baby to a complete stranger before going to the bathroom, and only on such a flight would the child be joyfully received.

Perhaps as importantly, as these children grow older, their family bonds are maintained through what the authors call a "thanksgiving every week." The phenomenon of Shabbat dinner, of families gathering every Friday night to mark a moment in time together, is by no means limited to those scrupulously observant of Jewish ritual; it is an aspect of Israeli life.

Whereas many Americans may see grandparents, aunts, and uncles two or three times a year, in Israel "families are larger and closer, both geographically and in the time and frequency spent together."

Within this familial culture, Jews in Israel are constantly reminded that they are part of a people, and a history. In rituals like the Passover seder, where the story of Exodus is annually retold, Judaism has created what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called "a nation of storytellers." It is no coincidence, Senor and Singer argue, that some of the most creative storytelling on television is now in Israel; the Jewish ingathering ensures "a particularly story-rich environment because, as a nation of immigrants, almost every family has its origin story." (One is reminded of the scene in the classic TV series The Wonder Years, where Kevin, played by Fred Savage, attends the bar mitzvah of his friend Paul and is struck by a Jewish family’s understanding of its origins. Returning home, Kevin asks his father where their own family is "from." The answer is quickly and gruffly given: "Newark.") At the same time, Senor and Singer reflect that these Jewish stories all converge in Israel, a "bookend of the story of exile, of the return of the people." Israelis see themselves, at the core, as different tales with one larger story—the knowledge of this inner connection is the source of Israelis’ unity and resiliency, a knowledge that they are all in this together, that they must have each other’s backs.

In the past several weeks since the horror of Hamas descended on Israel, the familial unity described by Senor and Singer can be seen everywhere. In Tel Aviv, once riven by religious debates, several high-end restaurants became kosher in order to cater to religiously observant soldiers. Israelis continue to create families; weddings that had been meant to take place in halls and hotels have been moved to homes and even army bases, with at times both bride and groom wearing the IDF green under the wedding canopy. In one notable story, a soldier returned from the front for one evening to wed the love of his life, and his neighbor offered him a large backyard in which to hold the ceremony. As the groom’s mother prepared for the wedding, her hairdresser asserted that he would ensure Ishay Ribo, one of the most famous singers in Israel, would perform. Ribo did indeed come, singing the song of the Passover seder: "In every generation they rise up to destroy us, and God saves us from their hands."

Now, the eyes of the world are on Israel, seeking to understand the war it faces. Dan Senor (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) has become an invaluable source of information to non-Israelis through his podcast "Call Me Back." Meanwhile, the resiliency of Israeli society described in The Genius of Israel has been made manifest in a profoundly instructive way. Social scientists and thinkers in America have bemoaned the weakening of the familial and communal associations that Alexis de Tocqueville once saw as the essence of American democratic life. Senor and Singer have shown that it is in Israel that Tocqueville lives—and it is to Israel that "democracy in America" can look if it wishes to learn how to revive its own society.

Vibrant, even vituperative debate will once again return to Israeli politics, focusing on some of the long-term questions facing Israel. These issues are also addressed in this very important volume. But for now, a reunited country shifts from rhetorical and political "wars of the Jews" to an actual war waged in protection of Jews, in a world where anti-Semitism is anything but obsolete. As daunting as this is, one need only watch videos online of Ishay Ribo performing for the troops, and the soldiers exultantly singing in response, to see the deep meaning that these young men and women find in the challenging role that Jewish history has asked them to fulfill. They know that they are part of a loving society, a miraculous country, and a millennia-long story. Senor and Singer allow us to understand why in a moment of terrible trial, the genius of Israel is revealing itself once again.

The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World
by Dan Senor and Saul Singer
Avid Reader Press, 336 pp., $30

Meir Y. Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City and the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.