Life & Culture

The Genius of Israel review: Why the Jewish state is one of the best places to live

From its family ties to scouts and soldiers, Dan Senor and Saul Singer's work celebrates all that's great about the nation


The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World
by Dan Senor and Saul Singer
Constable, £20

The Genius of Israel arrives at a difficult time. For one thing, it went to print late in the summer when, as the authors set out, the country’s primary preoccupation was anti-democracy reforms.

What’s more, Israel is now embroiled in a war with Hamas, and while the country is united in grief, there is heavy criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision-making before the outbreak of hostilities in October and widening division over his handling of the response.

The Israel of November 2023 is a very different place to the Israel of the summer, let alone the period before Netanyahu’s attempted dismantling of the judiciary.

What’s more, although the authors delve into Israel’s religious-secular split at length, they are oddly apolitical on Netanyahu’s polarising politics and spend little time assessing the electoral system that has enabled the last few years of political stalemate — something that sits oddly with an objective to explore the essential characteristics of Israeli society.

Yet if you can put that aside, Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s follow up to their 2009 bestseller Start-Up Nation makes for an absorbing read, thanks to its journalistic style and emphasis on colourful anecdotes.

The authors have an infectious, if rose-tinted enthusiasm for their subject, offering endless titbits about Israel’s resilience, why Israelis are happier than people in comparable nations, and why the country continues to flourish as a desirable place to live despite the security situation and economic pressures.

The central thesis is that Israel has assorted unusual qualities, not least the sense of “gibush”, a term they loosely define as meaning people brought together with the goal of deepening the bond uniting them Then there’s the “hevre”, larger circles that people move in.

The main advantage of this is the enabling of community structures, from close knit (and geographically close) families to the networks that start in childhood and sustain Israelis throughout their lives, both of which are less common in western societies.

The authors mention by way of example youth movements such as the Israeli Scouts, and indeed much of what they talk about feels broadly true of the wider Jewish world, which also thrives off these connections. But what we lack in the diaspora is conscripted army service; something the authors repeatedly show is the origin of Israel’s genius.

This is not because of the IDF’s defence role, but because it is the great leveller. “The IDF is an elite organisation that unlike others can’t thrive by keeping people out, but by ensuring everyone in it meets their full potential,” they explain. Miluim (reserve duty), helps maintains connections where other networks might wane.

The second recurring argument is that Israel is a good place to bring up a family, even despite the security situation.

In Israel, they find, the number of children you have is almost a status symbol and work coexists with family life, although whether that’s true of every job or just those in rarefied roles where such balance is possible, is not explored.

Later, they discuss how Israeli Arabs and the charedim can be part of this societal success story, although once again their tone is almost childishly upbeat and they focus less on the problems and more on the exceptions to the rule: the inspirational Israeli Arab politician Mansour Abbas, or the charedi-led business start-ups, rather than those left behind.

The Genius of Israel would have benefited from interrogating more counter-examples; what about those not benefiting from Israel’s genius?

Those who don’t thrive in the army, or find jobs that offer balance, or simply find the cost of living an impossible burden?

`What about same-sex couples, facing hostility from the religious right? And it is curiously silent on waves of immigration from Russia and Ethiopia, and how newer communities fit into modern Israeli society.

Still, if it’s a utopian vision, it’s welcome right now. In the authors’ steadfast belief that Israeli society can weather every storm – the Lebanon war in the 1980s, for example – there is a suggestion that even after recent tragedies and the political fallout that is still to come, Israel will bounce back.

“Israeli society is like a very strong rubber band,” they write. “However stretched it becomes, there are strong forces pulling it back together.” Let’s hope so.

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