How to be an Optimist in the Middle East

The life-affirming power inherent in the belief that where we are going is still in our hands
Dr. Tal Becker is a senior research fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker served, until recently, as the

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post

Repeated surveys suggest that Israelis are among the happiest and most optimistic people in the Western world. One such study conducted by Gallup ranked Israel in the Top 10 countries on the “happiness” list, alongside New Zealand (!). It’s not quite clear what weight can be given to these kinds of surveys, but almost anyone I’ve met responds to these statistics with pure astonishment.

The results are counterintuitive. For a country beset by such grave threats, so scarred by war and terrorism, and with such deep internal challenges, happiness is not the first emotion that comes to mind. Israeli Jews are thought to take a certain pride in being hard-nosed and cynical. It is part, perhaps, of living in such a dangerous neighborhood, or of belonging to a people with a unique history of persecution, that cheerfulness is often more associated with naivete than with a positive attitude to life.

The disconnect is most telling when one compares the sense of vibrancy and passion of Israelis on the street with the regularly depressing headlines of the newspapers, or the downbeat analysis of Israeli experts and spokespeople about the  regional predicament. It is hard, especially for visitors to Israel, to reconcile the dangers Israelis face with the mood on a Tel Aviv beach on any given day.

There are numerous potential explanations for this mysterious optimism. Some have suggested it is the result of a certain fearlessness produced by decades of conflict. Others claim, as former New York Times correspondent Ethan Bronner did in a widely discussed column last week, that Israelis have increasingly turned inward, focusing more on their private lives than on the national drama – a version of ignorance being the best form of bliss.

But perhaps a deeper explanation lies in differing conceptions of the very nature of optimism itself. For many, the optimist is one who can see the positive in any situation, who insists – sometimes with the assistance of rose-colored glasses – on searching out and focusing on what is good and promising in any reality. This brand of optimism can be dangerous anywhere, but especially in the Middle East. It can promote a distortion of reality and can lead one to misjudge or belittle the seriousness of Israel’s threats. The result can be a form of hope that produces false expectations, and may be a greater guarantee of future misery than of lasting happiness.

There is, however, a different understanding of optimism which is more deeply ingrained in the Zionist mindset and in our Jewish tradition. We are able to be positive and hopeful not necessarily because we think the present story of Israel is one overflowing with good news, but because we know that the full story has not yet been told. There is more work that we can do to shape the next chapters of Israel’s history – the choices we make and the integrity with which we make them matter. In this version, an optimist is not one that sees the glass as half full but rather one who believes it may still be possible, with resilience and patience, to slowly fill it.

This kind of attitude was as critical to the early Zionists who built the State as it is to Israel’s well-being today. It is what led us to concentrate on what could be built out of the part of our ancient homeland offered in the UN Partition Resolution. It is what produces the innovation and ingenuity Israelis are known for today – by asking what can be created from what we have. And it is what should underlie the pursuit of peace and security today – not a fanciful belief that some kind of idyllic peace is easily within reach, but rather the sense of empowerment which comes from recognizing that with wise choices and effective action we can make our lives better, more secure and more peaceful, even if not fully free from fear or danger.

This same kind of optimism draws its inspiration from the Jewish tradition. President Shimon Peres is fond of saying that one of the Jewish people’s greatest exports is dissatisfaction. But perhaps another way to express this idea is that the Biblical imperative of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19:6) compels you not only to ask how can I be better tomorrow than I was today, but also to believe that constant improvement is possible. For Judaism, and the Jewish story, it has never been about arriving at the ultimate destination – that is, in the hands of the Messiah – it is about recognizing our capacity to move, however incrementally, in the right direction.

Anyone truly familiar with Jewish history, with the miracle of Israel’s establishment, with the dangers we have overcome cannot help but be an optimist. But this is not because the outcome is clear or necessarily guaranteed; it is because of the life-affirming power inherent in the belief that where we are going is still, at least in part, in our hands.

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