A recent World Happiness Report was published by the United Nation's Sustainable Development Solutions Network, surveying 156 countries. Not surprisingly, the first four "happiest countries" were all Scandinavian. Switzerland came in fifth, while Israel ranked at the very high 11
place globally. The U.S. ranked in the 18
place. With everything happening here, both outside our borders and domestically, one might wonder what makes Israelis so happy.
As Israel celebrates its 70
anniversary, we reflect back if for no other reason than because round anniversaries are often a good opportunity to-well, reflect back. We are still a very young country. To put things in perspective, the United States of America celebrated its own 70
anniversary back in 1846, a full 15 years
the Civil War-perhaps the most formative event in shaping modern America. While many of us don't remember the creation of the Jewish State in 1948, in historical terms it is a very recent event.
At 70, Israel is still a work in progress. It is a democracy seeking to determine the exact definition of what that term means, as we struggle with challenges that no other country faces: how to forge a modern, western society from a melting pot of people coming from dozens of countries and cultures?
How to reconcile the Jewish character of the only Jewish state in the world with the universal humanistic values which would dictate equal rights and freedoms to all minorities regardless of faith and ethnic origin? How to preserve the rule of law and human rights while defending the country against ruthless enemies who will not respect the same moral values and who sanctify death and martyrdom as an esteemed ideal? And how to ensure that every stream within the Jewish faith, at home and in the diaspora, feels part of the same people, preserving its identity and character while respecting those of all other streams?
How does a young nation make all this work while providing all its citizens with all their needs and enabling their personal development and growth, notwithstanding a myriad of challenges?
The challenges are indeed daunting-some would say, overwhelming. I've often wondered why any person in their right mind would actively strive to be the Prime Minister of a country where it seems that no day goes by without a crisis of some sort. The crises are real-none of it is imagined. There are strategic threats posed to us by Iran, a country whose declared goal is the destruction of Israel with a nuclear option and the long-range missile capability that would enable it to bomb us. We are surrounded by a Middle East in turmoil and we face multiple terrorist organizations which will not cease trying to kill our citizens.
Domestically, there is a worrying gap between the richest and poorest among us, creating a host of social issues. The government budget, while growing annually, seems inadequate in keeping up with growing health, education, and welfare needs. Thirty-five thousand non-profit organizations attest to the fact that the needs of our society far outweigh the government's ability to respond to them.
And yet, Israelis are happy. More Israelis travel abroad on vacation than ever before. More of us buy new cars and luxury items than in the past, and we spend more on culture and leisure than in the past. Try to book a table at one of hundreds of Tel Aviv restaurants on a regular weeknight and you will find that you stand a better chance of winning the lottery.
Maybe Israelis are happy because we are able to go beyond the big issues and see the big picture. Sure, there are threats and dangers, challenges, and difficulties, but by and large our standard of living is getting better every year (and is now at European levels). While terrorism still exists, we feel safe and protected by the strongest army in the Middle East using the best technology in the world against every type of weapon arrayed on our borders. In terms of medical and other innovation, we continue to stand at the leading edge, doing good for humanity. And although there are certainly shortcomings in the way the government is handling our national budget, few of us have an idea of how to do it better. On a day-to-day basis, life in Israel is actually pretty good for most people and most of the time.
For us regular Israelis, life is not just about Iran, terrorism, and Tel Aviv's monumental traffic jams. Life is about a great falafel (every Israeli has a favorite one he or she will swear by), smooth hummus (again, a reason for many debates), 350 boutique wineries, and 35 craft beer makers. Israel is a country of 330 days of sunshine a year and beaches that are among the prettiest and cleanest in the whole Mediterranean region. Not to mention the cultural richness and the nature trails that host tens of thousands of Israelis every weekend.
We are happy because after 2,000 years of being dispersed throughout all four corners of the world we finally have our own homeland. We are happy because our people has survived the worst atrocities in history as well as the vicious brutality of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Mongols, Persians, Crusaders, and every other empire in history-and we are still here, stronger than ever. At 70, we have much to look forward to, and a lot to be happy about!
Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.