There is nothing like stepping back to put things into perspective. While I was touring Europe in the summer, I took the opportunity to test friends and family’s opinions and misconceptions about Israel. I can say one thing: what a mess!
Most people have a pretty dark image of Israel, so much that they will be reluctant to picture something even vaguely positive going on here, something other than wars and terrorism. Like the fact that Israel has a pretty vibrant contemporary art scene. That it is a country with great climate, offering by a year-round beach scene. That it is enough to take a walk to marvel at the sight of the many young families around. When people hear that people could indeed be happy here, I notice is a frown on their faces, as if to manifest the thought that, well, maybe, they shouldn’t.
Israel has been recently ranked as the 8th happiest country in the world. This intriguing statistic was published by Forbes; the news surprised me, as it challenged my own perspective. As much as I have been enjoying living here, maybe for the fantastic climate, maybe for the straightforwardness of the Israelis, maybe for the fascinating aspects of this young experiment which is modern-day Israel, there is a part of me which more or less consciously sits on the side of those who think that, maybe, we (I?) should actually be a bit ashamed of this happiness. I can not be mindlessly happy when this happiness comes at the expenses of other people. Guilt creeps in. But is it really so? Can we really say that’ happiness is taking place at the expenses of others? Well, truth is not so black and white. Never so simple.
What is it that makes Israelis happy?
It is reasonable that wars and the presence of an external threat bring cohesiveness to a nation. As much as this should be true for both populations, it apparently isn’t, since Palestinians have been ranked 88th in the same hit parade of the happiest people in the world. To understand Israel’s top score, we could look into material wealth, of which Israel has an established share, infinitely more than the economically stalled Palestine of today. But, hey: money can only partially bring happiness, as plentiful studies have shown. Once you have enough to care for your own well being and that of your family, a greater degree of richness won’t directly affect your happiness in a positive way. Moreover, even if we accept the assumption that money makes you happy, then the wealthy European countries or United States should be on top of the list (and they aren’t).
So what else can it be?
I once was told my Ulpan teacher that Hummus is the real source of happiness for Israelis. It is proved scientifically that chickpeas contains a certain chemical enhancer of relaxation, with mild intoxicating properties. But, seriously: is that enough to make people happy? It still does not clearly singles out Israelis, since many Middle East countries are avid consumer of the golden bean.
When comparing Palestine and Israel, many refers to the much greater freedom that the Jewish state enjoys. While this is absolutely true in relative terms (I don’t even want to start talking about the brutality of checkpoints and the similar measures of restriction which greatly affect Palestinians), overall freedom is not a peculiarity of Israel as a country: male Israelis have 3 years of obligatory military service ahead or behind them, female have 2, and both have many religious norms to bow to, which noticeably limit personal freedom: Shabbat, the precepts of kosher kitchen, ecc.
Physical freedom is also restricted: the country is small, the neighbours are not so welcoming, and an Israeli passport wont make you a carefree tourist in many parts of the world. So what is it? In order not to resort to say “the sun”- although the scientifically connection between sunshine and happiness is well known – I will have to look further into the matter.
Maybe youth is the key. Israel is a young country, a home which has been missed for long by Jewish people. Anyone here – even the freshest Aliya immigrant, which won’t even speak the language yet – will go a long (read: looooong) way to defend Israel, even at the price of self-delusion about the objective sufferance of any affected counterpart. This country is precious in many ways, and even miraculous, if you think about it. Like most teenagers, Israel suffers of many defects: clumsiness, self-centeredness, arrogance. But it also boasts vitality, optimism and an incomparable freshness which I greatly appreciate.
It is comforting to read that the statistic took a look at the happiness of Israeli Arabs, who are Christian and Muslim Arabs who live within the current borders of Israel. One would think of them as a pretty miserable segment of the population, as they are often described in these terms, segregated in the house of the “enemy”. Nonetheless, when a referendum was handed out to Israeli Arabs of Um al Fahm, asking if they would rather join a newly created Palestinian state, a surprisingly 83% declined, dismantling the above preconception. Unhappy Israeli Arabs are maybe just another creation of the political discourse.