In other words, the country may be facing a reckoning because of deep societal divisions and its precarious place in the Middle East, but paradoxically, Israel arrived here as one of the world’s most successful societies, with a thrumming energy. And that may prove its salvation.
I returned to Israel earlier this year for my fourth tour as a correspondent in 40 years, and I recognize much of what the authors describe. A country that was not long ago agrarian, struggling and under siege has become a beacon of high-tech growth and development. Fast trains are being built to link previously remote cities. Parts of the once quaint center of Tel Aviv now rival the Shanghai skyline.
Most Israelis feel a deep sense of belonging and attachment to one another. But the failure of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protect its citizens, and the angst that has pervaded every conversation for the past year, suggest that the future is far from assured.
Here it is worth pausing to note that, while Senor and Singer devote short sections to Israel’s two million Arab citizens and one million ultra-Orthodox Jews, they are focused on the country’s six million or so mainstream Jewish Israelis. They also ignore the circumstances of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation next door. Some would argue that this amounts to telling the story of the Titanic without mentioning icebergs.
Senor, an American writer, podcaster and investor who has guided Republican politicians such as Mitt Romney, and Singer, an American-born journalist who advised members of Congress before moving to Israel 30 years ago, talked to scores of Israelis, from entrepreneurs to politicians to religious leaders and TV writers. The book is an easy read and the narrative conceit — a quest to figure out Israeli exceptionalism — works pretty well. The data are so remarkable, after all, that they beg for explanation.
The search for answers brings them back partly to the military. Unlike Americans, Israeli youth learn early that they are part of something larger. The military offers an alternative to the academic meritocracy and values determination, teamwork and self-criticism. Focusing on those skills, the authors argue, helps build a superior and more creative work force.
Loneliness is increasingly seen as the bane of Western existence, but in Israel, as the TV executive Danna Stern tells her interlocutors, “We overshare. We go into details. There is no sense of privacy and there are no boundaries between work and home.” It is, she says, “a recipe for love and conflict.” The way in which the country came together to take on its military challenges in recent weeks is further evidence of this.
Indeed, the book argues, the ongoing external threat and the shared goal of building a secure Jewish state that defies not only the Nazi Holocaust but centuries of antisemitism create a sense of purpose. To know that your very existence is at stake focuses the mind. As Micah Goodman, a writer and thinker, tells the authors, there is a feeling in Israel that “history is happening” and that every citizen helps make it happen.
After its security crisis ends, Israel will return to the brewing battle over whether every citizen does in fact make it happen and how competing agendas clash in defining a state as both Jewish and democratic. It seems hard to gain a full picture of the country’s future without a deep look at the large marginalized groups the authors put to the side.
About a fifth of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish. About one in eight practices a Judaism so all-consuming that there is little room for secular studies or income-producing work. Some three million Palestinians live under occupation in the West Bank with little prospect of attaining full rights, and another two million are trapped in Gaza under Hamas. Can the country continue to turn away from these challenges and pay no price? As Oct. 7 and its tragic aftermath illustrate, the answer is no.
The authors did most of their work before this year’s fight over the independence of the judiciary. Running to catch up, Senor and Singer rewrote their opening note to reiterate the message of a later chapter on previous crises. In 1952, the Israeli government accepted about $800 million in reparations for the Holocaust from West Germany. Protesters who felt this money pardoned the Nazis marched up to the Knesset, threw stones and injured several legislators. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to pursue Palestinian militants who had attacked Israeli civilians, and allowed its Lebanese allies into Palestinian refugee camps, where they massacred at least 800 people. Over the ensuing months, hundreds of thousands of disgusted Israelis filled the streets; in response, a right-wing activist threw a grenade into a crowd, killing an Israeli military veteran who opposed his government’s actions.
Many such moments in Israel’s history have produced intense internal fighting and, the authors argue, the crisis this year over the nature of its democracy may prove no more dire. The Hamas slaughter followed by Israel’s unforgiving war in Gaza came after the book went to press. The regional picture has rarely been darker as Iranian-backed militias aim at Israel from several directions. This feels different. The optimism that propels “The Genius of Israel” seems, just now, like a distant memory.
THE GENIUS OF ISRAEL: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World | By Dan Senor and Saul Singer | Avid Reader | 316 pp. | $30