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?
Still, it’s not sufficient to have a big-enough story in a small-enough country. What counts are the institutions, values, and habits that make it possible for Israelis to find ways to make themselves a part of that story—and to do so in ways that enrich their own lives. Despite the many failings of Israel’s political system, it manages to do at least two forms of politics extremely well: one at the meta-level, the other at the micro-level, and each far more significant than whatever goes on in the Knesset.
At the meta-level, there are those wailing sirens of memory, on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron—Holocaust remembrance and national remembrance days—that are so unique to Israel. They do more than commemorate tragedy and sacrifice. They also explain the country to itself.
“To Israelis, the nation is neither abstract nor assumed,” Senor and Singer write. “Israelis are socialized to understand this because they will be called upon to sacrifice years of their lives, if not more, as their turn comes to protect the palpable vessel that they personally must continue to build. And in doing so, they gain a sense of belonging not only to a people and a project that is larger than themselves, but to a shared purpose.”
Giving shape to the touchstones of remembrance and belonging is the institution of the Israel Defense Forces. There is nothing remotely like it elsewhere in the world. Other democracies (South Korea, Switzerland, Finland) may have conscription. But none involve nearly so much service, or draw from as broad a fraction of the overall population, or are as important a mechanism of social cohesion and mobility, or serve as vital a national purpose, as Israel’s. Then, too, in countries where conscription is a norm, finding ways to avoid service is what privileged young people usually do. Not so in the Jewish state. “In most meritocracies, the criterion to reach the pinnacle of merit is individual academic excellence,” Senor and Singer observe. “In Israel, the most meritorious are those who seek and are chosen for the most challenging service.”
The IDF serves two additional social purposes beyond its paramount responsibility for national defense. First, it is a leadership factory: Roughly 640,000 Israelis between 25 and 65—or roughly 1 in 10 adults—have had significant command responsibility at relatively young ages, something seen nowhere else in the developed world. This tends to make for a country of people who know how to be both risk takers and prudent stewards; who are problem solvers and team players; who can organize people and execute a mission. All this goes far to explain why, in the 21st century, Israel has consistently ranked among the top three or four developed countries (along with Ireland, Australia, and Singapore) in terms of consistently strong economic growth.
Second, the military is a second-chance institution, which goes out of its way to maximize the potential of young people in whom it may not be immediately apparent, including childhood delinquents and the disabled. Among the most illuminating sections of The Genius of Israel tells the story of two old friends from military service, tech entrepreneur Boaz Keinan and former intelligence officer Tal Vardi, who were reunited at a memorial service for the son of an old fellow soldier. Both of Keinan’s children are autistic, and he feared for their future if they could not serve in the military. So he sold his company, recruited Vardi to run a family foundation focused on autism, relied on the help of a circle of first- and secondhand acquaintances (including then–Mossad chief Tamir Pardo), and persuaded the army to put autistic soldiers to work in Unit 9900, which handles visual intelligence.
With their ability to spot subtle patterns lost on most intelligence analysts, the soldiers soon proved their worth—noting, for instance, how the absence of movement of poolside umbrella shades at the Damascus Hilton at the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011 showed how things were changing in the city. Today the IDF “employs, on an absolute basis, more people with autism than any other organization in the world.”
The world also witnessed two additional examples of meta-politics during the last months of mass protest, in the form of thousands of Israeli flags forming the primary symbol of opposition to the government’s judicial ambitions. This is extraordinary. In other Western countries swept by “mostly peaceful” protests in recent years, there’s been a burn-it-all-down ethos: statues torn down, stores looted, people hurt or killed. In Israel, not only have the protests been entirely peaceful, they have also been entirely patriotic. David Grossman, the Israeli novelist, gave voice to that sentiment in a speech he gave at a demonstration shortly before Passover. “We did not realize how deeply we belong to this state,” he said.
Belonging, caring, solidarity: words that have taken on existential dimensions and solidity as this night falls upon us. We ourselves did not imagine how much love was hidden inside us for the way of life we have managed to create here in Israel.
The second example happened on October 7, and the days right after. In the wake of the greatest military setback in Israeli history, reservists from Melbourne, Chicago, Dubai, Miami, New Jersey, and elsewhere packed El Al flights, racing to get back to their old units. These were people who, overwhelmingly, would have had the option to stay home, to let someone else don a uniform. Compare that with Russia, where millions of young men fled conscription, or to Europe and the United States, where most young men wouldn’t consider it even if their countries were in mortal peril. Again, Israel stands alone, and stands out.
But it’s not just the meta-politics of Israel that remain healthy, at least when compared with other democracies. There’s also micro-politics: the Israeli experience of everyday life at the level of family, classroom, neighborhood, military unit, professional network, and hevre, or friendship circle, over which hovers the spirit of bonding, or gibush. Israelis still reserve Friday nights for dinner with extended family. They expect their neighbors to look out for their kids. They accept that teachers will put the interests of the entire classroom ahead of the interests of individual students. They encourage those children to join youth movements and have adventures. They send their kids to intense pre-army courses known as mechinot. They become intensely bonded to Israelis from different walks of life while serving together on a base, in a tank, aboard a ship. They emerge from their military service and decide to start an A.I. company (there are some 2,000 A.I.-related start-ups in the country) or try to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon.
In short, they rely on one another. “Rather than seeing strangers as a threat, Israelis see strangers as a layer of safety that they can depend on because everyone is part of the same community,” Senor and Singer write. What it produces, they add, is “a culture of mutual responsibility.” The emphasis on the group does not come at the expense of the individual. Instead, they balance, reinforce, and enhance each other. As in no other modern society today, togetherness matters.
This is the social trust at the heart of Israel’s success. In 2020, nearly all Israelis were able to put aside their personal and political reservations about Netanyahu and trust him to get vaccines into their arms—which he was able to do by giving Pfizer access to (anonymized) medical data in exchange for the shots. The Haredi community also had enough trust in the IDF to deliver food and other necessities to hundreds of thousands of people in B’nei Brak during the most intense phase of the lockdowns. Even amid the fury over judicial reform, Senor and Singer note, “Israelis are largely in agreement on a wide range of issues,” particularly when it comes to issues of national security and economic policy.
Trust also remains strong despite Israel’s supposedly unbridgeable divisions between its various “tribes”: secular, national-religious, Haredi, and Arab. Part of this is that these tribes intermingle more than is often thought. Only half of Haredi men might be in the workforce, but nearly 80 percent of Haredi women go to work, probably among the highest rates of female workforce-participation rates anywhere in the world. More than 1 in 5 incoming students at Israel’s Technion, in Haifa, is an Arab Israeli, and 80 percent of Israeli Arabs, according to a 2020 survey, tell pollsters they “want to be an integral part of Israeli society.”
“Somewhere in the Israeli’s family, somebody might have become ultra-Orthodox,” Asa-El tells the authors. “And in the ultra-Orthodox families, there are secular people—sometimes their own children. There is a social dynamic out there, there’s interaction.”
There’s also demographic dynamism: Contrary to some stark warnings that Arab and Haredi Israelis could constitute a majority of the overall population by the latter half of the century, demographers Alex Weinreb and Nachum Blass of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies believe that the Haredi population will grow from 13 percent today to around 15 to 17 percent in the next 20 to 25 years. As for Israeli Arabs, their fertility rate has fallen slightly below the Jewish one, meaning their share of the overall population is likely to shrink slightly in coming years.
None of this, of course, should be surprising, if only because Israelis have spent 75 years living with predictions of imminent or inevitable disaster that never materialized. Why? Not because Israel doesn’t face appalling threats. It’s because Israel’s quiet strengths tend to outpace its more glaring weaknesses.
Fifty years ago, after the near-calamity of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel’s survival depended on an emergency American airlift, it would have been difficult to imagine that one day Israel’s Iron Dome would defend America’s military installations in Guam while Israel’s Trophy active-protection system would be fitted to America’s fleet of M-1 tanks. Forty years ago, during the period of Israel’s hyperinflation, it would have been difficult to imagine that the country would ultimately enjoy a higher per capita GDP than Japan while drawing more foreign direct investment than Great Britain. Twenty years ago, at the height of the second intifada, it would be equally difficult to imagine that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict would not get in the way of forging peace agreements with various Arab states.
But it happened. That’s not a reason to be Pollyannish about this moment of crisis. It is a reason not to despair. Many countries make terrible mistakes, based on appalling strategic miscalculations that lead to bitter reversals: Britain at Dunkirk; America at Pearl Harbor. Great countries know how to recover from them. In that sense, Israel was and, I’m confident, remains a great country.
Critics of the book will say this is too generous—that the governmental failures leading up to October 7 were a reflection of, rather than an aberration from, what ails Israel. They’ll say that Netanyahu’s personalized and high-handed style of governance is more in keeping with Middle Eastern values than Western ones. They’ll say the same about the nationalist extremism typified by Ben-Gvir, or the corrupt self-dealing of a figure like Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Critics will also note that Senor and Singer offer no discussion of the settlements, and that Palestinians are kept almost entirely off-stage throughout their narrative. In some ways, the book seems more attuned to the Israel of early 2022, when Israel was governed by the broadest ideological and religious coalition in its history, rather than to the Israel of late 2023, when, under the narrowest of coalitions, it was beset by disaster.
But such criticisms would largely misapprehend what “The Genius of Israel” is about. It was never intended as a current-events book, addressing a moment in Israel’s history. In some ways, it is less a work about contemporary politics than it is of political science, albeit one completely stripped of academic jargon.
It is also a book that deserves a wide audience in the United States and other modern democracies. In reading The Genius of Israel, I found myself repeatedly thinking, wincingly, “That used to be us.” What happened to the America that raised its adolescents to seek adventure, not “safety”? What happened to the America where extended families were close, and multigenerational dinners happened every week, not just at Thanksgiving? What happened to the America in which people had great common formative experiences of public service, including military service, that bonded them in spite of political differences? What happened to the America in which everybody felt free to say exactly what was on their mind, and nobody felt embarrassed by ordinary expressions of patriotism? What happened to the America in which the most ferocious critics of a right-wing government were fiercely devoted to preserving the institutions of government, rather than to tearing them down? What happened to the America in which the words “Let’s try it” came readily to the lips of entrepreneurs, military officers, and even bureaucrats, as opposed to “Check with legal”?
Given current trends, it’s far from unthinkable that the kind of disaster that befell Israel on October 7 could, mutatis mutandis, hit the United States, too. If, God forbid, that were to happen, The Genius of Israel, for all of its seeming untimeliness now, could offer a timely guide for us then, when we might need a model for picking ourselves up once again.
Photo: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
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