The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World
Dan Senor and Saul Singer
Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 2023
328 pages; $27

Why is The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World, a book written before October 7 by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, authors of the highly acclaimed book Startup Nation, even more critical to read now in the aftermath of the Hamas massacre?

To truly appreciate the people of Israel is to understand the Israeli character, and how they coalesced after a year of division to rise to the occasion with a singular national purpose to defend their country and express their love of the Jewish state.

The return of indigenous people to their homeland after pogroms, inquisitions, crusades, massacres, discrimination, jihads, and the Holocaust is something to admire and celebrate, part of the reason Israelis are so determined to defend their nation and have so much grit to overcome hostile neighbors.

As Singer and Senor say, “Israelis are supposed to take the national interest into consideration …. They are supposed to make personal sacrifices for society.”

What allows Israel to survive is something nearly impossible to reproduce in the Diaspora: a deep sense of hevra – friend groups united by a common purpose: Zionism. “Hevra allows you to be part of something bigger.” Without such strong cohesion, Israel could not survive and unify in the shadow of October 7. Participating in the IDF is “serving something larger than themselves.” Israel is unique: a country of young people that fosters a culture of innovation, enhanced by compulsory service in the armed forces.

Israelis are not just a people living in a conflict zone but a miraculous in-gathering of exiles who survive and thrive as a cross-sectional polyglot of races, ethnicities, and cultures from over 70 nations that come together to form a distinctive communal family – Israelis.

The authors tell us that all Israelis, secular and religious, are part of the larger story of the Jewish people, so no one would blink an eye when laypeople use biblical references. Many popular secular songs in Israel have religious themes, as being Jewish in Israel spans the entire spectrum of Israeli life.

The close Israeli community structure is complicated for Americans to relate to, but it is the secret ingredient that makes the Jewish state unique. In America, the lodestar is the individual I; in Israel, it is more We.

Israel is a small, interconnected place with close bonds. Israel should be an aspirational model for the American Jewish Diaspora, whose families are spread apart and whose Jewish communities, except those of the observant, are fragmented.

Nothing is more critical to gaining insight into Israelis than considering the greater Israeli family, where everyone is connected. It is also a liability when they are confronting a terrorist adversary who knows how to exploit those societal values, trying to save every human life rather than writing off the hostages’ welfare in the risks of war.

It is this side of Israelis that explains how Israeli unanimity in destroying Hamas as the primary objective during the first week after the massacre evolved to prioritize the lives of the hostages, even knowing that time allowed Hamas to regroup, put more international pressure on Israel, and allowed more terrorists to be exchanged for hostages.

As the authors continually allude to, the communal values of treating every life as a world until itself are what make the Jewish nation very Jewish. The genius of Israel is being optimistic when things don’t work out. That is a secret weapon of Israelis. That explains, in part, how the nation can pick itself up again after the worst operational and intelligence failure in its history, the worst single day for Jews since the Holocaust.

As Senor and Singer write, “Israel’s cultural operating system is based on repeated exposure to ever-increasing challenges both before and during military service. This life trajectory produces people addicted to doing things that are difficult, important, and meaningful … Problem-solving is an Israeli happy place.”

These unique Israeli attributes start early, persist through a lifetime, and will be needed more than ever over the next year. One of the founders of Space IL, Israel’s mission to the moon, said that part of the reason for doing this endeavor, beyond doing something impossible, was about Zionism, doing something meaningful for the State of Israel. Even in private projects, the sense of national purpose is unique to Israelis. It used to define America, but it’s harder to see. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

The book discusses the approach of Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi, who said Israel works based on two essential social units. One is the Jewish family, whose values remain very powerful in a small country. The other is a robust social network, even in some ways stronger than the family…which “functions almost as a superfamily… within Hevra [Society], connections are constantly being added and strengthened as one goes through the different stages and experiences of life.” Israeli-American scholar Danny Gordis said Israelis are a people who need a community. Israelis learn at an early age that it is not all about you. The group is more important than the individual.

The IDF is a barometer of not only military readiness but also of societal health. That is why the authors tell the story of how Israel found a place to allow autistic citizens, neurodivergent, to participate and contribute using their unique skills and succeed in careers after the usual army service. Today, the IDF employs more autistic people than any other organization in the world. Very Jewish, very Israeli.

Americans tend to value how many things they have as a status gauge. According to Singer and Senor, a successful secular Tel Aviv family is measured by how many kids they have. If they can afford four children, it is a sign of status. In the US, American Jews marry late, if at all, and too often think that children are more a burden than a blessing.

Israel is a child-centric culture, where employers expect to give maternal and paternal leaves and where family obligations are accommodated. Grandparents are a big part of the Israeli childcare solution. It is hard to imagine in the US that Israelis assume that strangers will look out for each other and their kids. Israeli kids are free-range, while American Jewish kids have helicopter parents.

In the US, families converge on holidays, secular or religious, Thanksgiving or Passover. In Israel, even the non-observant meet weekly for a Shabbat family dinner, in addition to religious and national holidays. Shabbat is widely observed by secular Israelis, but not secular American Jews. Living in a Jewish country, Shabbat is part of the fabric of life for everyone. It is multi-generational, something that occurs infrequently in secular America.

So why is Israel so happy, or at least until this autumn? To understand a society that was determined to be the fourth-happiest people in the world in 2023 is to reevaluate your perception of what makes one happy.

According to the authors, “Every Israeli thinks history is happening” here; “you can touch it and shape it. You feel like you have a role in something bigger than yourself. Israel is a country that is small but has a “big story.” That translates into lives of meaning. There is a necessity for their presence in Israel. How many Americans think they can shape history?

“Israel is a country built on a story…the return of a people to their ancient homeland and language.”

There is a genius to these people built on the narratives of thousands of years of stories, from Abraham’s lonely journey to the land God will show him to the great migration from Egypt to Israel, to the painful stories of the Diaspora which somehow allowed a people to survive until they reclaimed their homeland.

Tal Ben Shahar, the acclaimed Harvard professor, says, “The secret to happiness is reality, reality, reality. What does reality have to do with happiness? When you face reality, you know how to deal with it, and Israelis live in reality.”

Israelis believe, as the authors tell it, according to the popular song “I have no other country, even if my land is burning,” which translates into the patriotism and solidarity that is so evident after October 7. For Israelis,

“Giving up is not an option.”

The glass of Israeli society is three-quarters filled. When we talk about Israelis, there is an asterisk, as it doesn’t fully include the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arab non or anti-Zionist citizens. However, unappreciated is that surveys of Israeli-Arabs show that upwards of 80% want to be fully incorporated as Israeli citizens. In the world of healthcare, they are already full participants as providers of care.

If Israel is to reach its full potential, it must include its Arab citizens, as well as get ultra-Orthodox Israelis to become total participants in the economy. How the post-October 7 Israeli world is handled regarding these two large minority groups is a significant challenge and opportunity that cannot be ignored once the security issues stabilize. As the authors point out, it is one thing to feel like a minority and another to be excluded.

It may take longer for this book to catch on than Startup Nation, primarily because all the focus today is on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah to the North. But it would be a mistake to wait too long before reading The Genius of Israel. That is because its stories are a road map to understanding the people of Israel and why the nation works as well as it does, despite living in a troubled part of the world.

Determination, resilience, cohesion, unity, innovation, meaning, family, and love of nation, Zionism, are all part of the genius of Israel that will allow it to survive the tragedy of October 7 and reinvent a better future. ■

This book review originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report Dec. 25, 2023 issue.

The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network) and regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides.

By mepin