Israel's Enduring Strength

A new Gallup poll reveals an intriguing tale about the happiness of Israelis.

Israel scored surprisingly – perhaps – high in the newly published Gallup poll ranking countries for their citizens’ happiness levels. Israel came in tied for eighth along with Canada, Australia, and Switzerland. Only the four Scandinavian countries – Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden – along with the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and New Zealand came in higher.

Clearly, being a democracy is necessary for scoring in this top eleven. Being among the world’s richest countries helps, but is not required; Israel and New Zealand are not among them, Costa Rica considerably less so.

But, clearly, what dramatically differentiates Israel from all the other ten, makes it an anomaly among them, is its security situation. Over the past decade alone, no other democracy has endured anything approaching the combination of the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, rockets from Gaza, the Gaza War, and constant threats and promises of Israel’s annihilation from Tehran. Yet, according to the poll, Israel is not only as happy as Canada, Australia, and Switzerland, but outpaces democracies like the United States, Britain, France, and many others.

Meanwhile – in honor of Tu B’Av, a revived, ancient Jewish holiday comparable to Valentine’s Day – last week Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics published data on marriage and children that again paint Israel as rather an anomaly. While 12 percent of its Jewish population see two as the optimal number of children in a family, and less than 1 percent would rather have only one, 40 percent would prefer three children, and 39 percent even higher numbers.

In other words, if Israel stands out negatively among democracies for its security situation, it stands out positively in its attitude toward procreation. And it is not only a matter of attitude; the current Israeli birth rate for secular Jewish women, 2.6, is by far the highest in the Western world, and the rate among Orthodox Jewish women in Israel is considerably higher.

We see, therefore, a democracy that is happy, and wants to have lots of kids, despite harsh experiences of terrorism and war. But there is still more.

The Israel Defense Forces is currently conducting one of its triannual drafts, and of the recruits who were approved for combat duty, the proportion requesting it – 73.3 percent – is an all-time Israeli record. The rate has been climbing since the perceived success of the Gaza War (or Operation Cast Lead), and some believe that worldwide criticism of Israel’s self-defense against terror is prompting a patriotic counterreaction.

Whatever the explanation, this datum, too, is striking considering that decades ago Israel was seemingly a much more “ideological” country, with much greater percentages of its youth taking part in socialist-Zionist, nationalist-Zionist, religious-Zionist, or just patriotic-Zionist youth movements. Since then the landscape of Israeli youth culture has – superficially at least – become much more “normal,” with a high infusion of Western pop. But from that landscape emerge young people more motivated than ever for difficult, dangerous combat training and service.

A long time ago, for approximately its first two decades, Israel was perceived and portrayed as a small, brave, admirable country, an inspiring phenomenon. Subsequently it became identified with disproportionate violence and oppression of the Palestinians. Anyone who cares to look through the media miasma will see a country no less inspiring, perhaps even more so, than back then, confronted more starkly than others with life and death and making its choice.