The Genius of Israel, Even Still

A book written before October 7 charts the way for Israel after October 7

by Bret Stephens, COMMENTARY

My COMMENTARY review of The Genius of Israel, Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s fascinating and compulsively readable follow-up to their 2009 international bestseller Start-Up Nation, was written, edited, and ready for publication when the catastrophe of October 7 put it on hold. I had given the book a glowing write-up. It offered, I thought, a timely and compelling antidote to the gloom that had beset so many Israelis and Diaspora Jews amid their bitter divisions over Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial-reform bills. And it showed why Israel was likely to continue to be an outperformer among nations.

After October 7, it was a review that demanded a rethink.

How could one speak of the “genius” of a country that had just suffered the greatest military debacle in its history—a debacle that owed not only to the barbarism of the enemy but also to the heedlessness of its supposedly brilliant military and political leadership? What was so smart about entrusting a petulant and bigoted nebbish like Itamar Ben-Gvir with ministerial responsibility for national security? Where was the wisdom in permitting Qatar to give billions to Hamas, knowing full well that funds meant to sustain the Palestinian economy were instead underwriting terror tunnels and Kassam rockets? Who thought that an enemy as fanatical as Hamas would be stopped by the 21st-century Maginot Line that was Israel’s border wall with Gaza? When did surveillance technology become a substitute for strategy, initiative, and foresight, particularly in a country that cannot afford a single day of weakness?

These are important questions, particularly regarding the crisis that Israel is now in. But there are other questions, too, more important ones, about whether Israel will be able to surmount its crisis and continue to flourish in the years and decades ahead. “Israel,” after all, doesn’t just mean a given government at a given point in time. It’s a nation that has developed habits of mind and action over 75 years of sovereign life, and thousands of years before that, which distinguishes it from its neighbors and peers. And those habits will persist long after Hamas is vanquished, the Netanyahu government is out of power, and the war in Gaza becomes another bitter but ultimately triumphant chapter in Jewish history.

In these respects—and despite a title that hardly seems to fit the moment—The Genius of Israel has much to teach us.

What is it that makes certain nations resilient and resourceful in the face of adversity, the way Britain was during the Blitz or Ukraine after the Russian invasion? What is it that makes other nations, like France in 1940 or Afghanistan in 2021, fragile and easily beaten?

Historians and political scientists have looked at these questions for decades, and the answers only rarely come down primarily to economic or military power. Instead, what matters are two unique and related forms of wealth: human and social capital. Human capital—the talent, skills, effortfulness, and knowledge of a population—helps produce solutions to problems that defeat others. Social capital—in the form of trust, openness, patriotism, personal and public responsibilities—is what enables societies to make the most of its human capital.

Israel possesses these two assets in spades, a fact Senor and Singer observe by noting the many ways in which Israeli society has thrived in recent decades—often in the teeth of trends that define most other modern countries. A few examples:

Optimism: Most rich countries are deeply pessimistic about their economic futures: 82 percent of Japanese, 78 percent of the French, and 72 percent of Americans think their children will be worse off, at least financially, than they are. In Israel, by contrast, there is the least amount of pessimism: Only 27 percent think they’re kids will do worse. Israel also has among the world’s lowest rates of “deaths of despair”—that is, suicides and drug- or alcohol-related death—which indicates that most Israelis feel they have much to live for.

Happiness: In 2013, Israel ranked No. 11 among the world’s nations in the World Happiness Report, a well-researched document that measures factors such as economic prosperity, social support and trust, health, generosity, and freedom to make life’s choices. This year, Israel ranked fourth worldwide, ahead of every other country except for Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

Life expectancy: At 83.4 years (85.1 for women, 81.6 for men), Israelis born in 2023 can expect to live longer than the French, New Zealanders, Canadians, the Dutch, Austrians, Finns, Germans, Danes, Greeks, Taiwanese, and, by nearly a full four years, Americans. Israeli men also rank fourth worldwide, and Israeli women eighth, in a measure called “healthy life expectancy”—that is, the years in which people can expect full health.

Demography: With an average of roughly three children born per woman, Israel is the only developed country that exceeds the “replacement rate,” which is the number of children women must have (2.1) in order to maintain population levels. In the U.S., the figure is just under 1.8; in South Korea, it’s about 0.8. By 2050, Japan will lose about one-fifth of its population; Israel’s will grow by nearly half. Among the many advantages of a society in which the median age is 37 or younger—Israel’s is 30—is that it has an entrepreneurship rate double that of countries where the median age is 41 or older. In the European Union, it’s currently 44.

What makes these factors more remarkable, Senor and Singer note, is that ordinary explanations fail to account for Israel’s exceptionalism. Israeli politics aren’t exactly a model of harmony, and Israelis lead lives that—as the recent weeks of tragedy and threat have shown—are vastly more stressful than those in most Western countries. But neither political dysfunction nor ubiquitous threats seems to have much of an effect on Israelis’ health or happiness. Israeli teens are just as screen-addicted and exposed to social media as their American peers. But they aren’t suffering equivalent rates of depression and anxiety. And contrary to stereotype, Israel’s positive demographic trends aren’t just a factor of Israeli Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox having very large families. Secular Israelis, too, want relatively large families by Western standards, with three or four children being considered perfectly normal.

So what’s Israel’s secret sauce—the “genius” of the book’s title?

One elegant answer is given by the Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman. Israel, he told Senor and Singer, “is a small country with a big story… Big enough to give you meaning and small enough for you to have influence on it.” The United States, Goodman elaborated, is a big country with a big story, but relatively few Americans will ever have opportunities to shape that story in significant ways. A little country—a Belgium or a Slovakia—may be small enough for an individual to make a difference. But a difference for the sake of what?


November 29, 2023 | Comments »

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