The Sderot police station attacked by Hamas on October 7

Postcards from before the war

It is no longer possible to reflect upon Israeli culture as if the “Question of Palestine” could be brushed aside

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

You have to feel sorry for books that pass their shelf life before they’ve even been published. “Due out on 8 December”, quipped Private Eye last year of Harry Cole and James Heale’s book about Liz Truss’s “astonishing rise to power” … “the book, that is, not its subject”. The Genius of Israel, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, may suffer a similar fate.

Sent to the presses last summer and published, infelicitously, in November, it responds to a particular historical moment — the struggle over the structure of Israel’s government. But since 7 October 2023, the debate that once engulfed Israel over the government’s plans for judicial reform has all seemed rather quaint.

The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World, Dan Senor and Saul Singer (Simon and Schuster, £20)

The Genius of Israel is a follow-up to the same authors’ 2009 bestseller Start-up Nation, which drew attention to the remarkable success of Israel’s tech sector. In their new book, they broaden their scope to Israeli society as a whole. Senor and Singer are shrewd observers, but one gets the sense that they are a little too in love with their subject to paint a fair picture: what those ceaseless books about Denmark are for “happiness” and “wellbeing”, these books about Israel are for “innovativeness” and “resilience”.

The Genius of Israel imparts its lessons in a breezy, sub-Gladwellian prose; every Big Idea is introduced with an anecdote about a character we never hear of again. Chapters begin with sentences such as “Tiffanie Wen lay on the massage mat”, and “Glenn Cohen was crestfallen”, or “Limor Weissbart speaks quickly. Not because she is in a hurry, but because she is on a mission”.

The book seeks to account for several startling facts about Israel. Why does it have a lower rate of deaths of despair — suicide, alcoholism, drug overdoses — than, say, Denmark (the much-advertised benefits of hygge notwithstanding)? Why is it alone amongst wealthy nations in having such high fertility, well above the replacement rate? Why is it less politically polarised than, say, the USA? The rancorous debate over judicial reform, the authors argue, belies the fact that most Israelis agree on key questions of economics and security. I tend to agree: probably the only thing preventing a centre-right supermajority in the Knesset is the odious personality of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The authors’ solution to all these conundrums is to present Israel as a kind of postliberal paradise. Israel is kept afloat by a communitarian ethic encapsulated by a line from the Talmud: “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” Deaths of despair are so low, at least in part, because most Israelis feel a deep sense of belonging. Family life plays a greater role in Israel than elsewhere: Friday night dinner, a custom religiously observed even by secular Israelis, functions as a weekly Christmas or Thanksgiving.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

In general, the happiest countries tend to be the most homogenous; but Israel, in true postliberal fashion, manages to buck the trend by tying its multiracial society together with shared rituals, beliefs and traditions. “Israel shows that a diverse population coupled with a robust civil calendar and cultural elements that bind people together could be the best of both worlds.” The “spice” and excitement of multicultural life, of the New York bodega and the London curry-house, thus combine with Tokyo-style tranquillity and social trust.

Regarding fertility, British readers of this book may learn something from the Israeli example. Israel has, on average, 2.9 births per woman, compared with our own measly 1.6. This is sometimes shrugged off as a distorting effect by the Haredi community (which averages over six births per woman), but Senor and Singer show this cannot account for all the difference: even secular Israelis have 25 per cent more children than Europeans.

The authors point to various reasons for why this is so. The greater role of family life in Israel means that there are more people on hand to share the burdens of childcare; and workplaces also often provide childcare services for their employees. Aside from cultural and religious factors, there is also the impact of government policy: Israel subsidises IVF on an enormous scale.

But Senor and Singer neglect the fact that Israel’s pronatalism is also underpinned by a deep anxiety about demographics, the same anxiety that compels the Israeli government to incentivise Jewish immigration from the Diaspora. This anxiety stems from the knowledge that if Israel is to remain both Jewish and democratic — and, though this is usually left unsaid, if Israel is one day to formally annex the occupied Palestinian territories — it is a matter of existential importance that Israeli Jews have as many babies as possible.

Likewise, the authors heap so much praise upon Israel’s postliberal society that they ignore its many downsides. It is one thing to expect the taxpayer to subsidise IVF treatments, but quite another to have them pay for the security of religious zealots settling the West Bank or to bankroll the Torah-study of the Haredim as they shirk military service. These are the fundamental political faultlines in Israel for which the debate over judicial reform was only ever a rough proxy. “All of Israel is responsible for one another” must surely have its limits.

Strikingly, the word “Palestinians” appears on only two pages of the book. This is not all that grates for the post-7 October reader. In one of their chapter-opening anecdotes, the authors tell the inspirational tale of Sderot, a town less than a mile from Gaza, which, surviving and flourishing against the odds, works as “a metaphor for Israel as a whole”. Sderot was amongst the principal targets of Hamas terrorists on 7 October and is now a ghost town. Many of its residents were killed, and those who survived have been evacuated. Nobody knows whether or when they will return.

My point here is not to chide the authors for failing to foresee an event that surprised even the Shin Bet. It is rather that it would no longer be possible to write such a book, or to reflect upon Israeli culture and society at all, as though the “Question of Palestine” could be brushed aside. The book is thus of interest as a relic of a more innocent time, when Israelis sincerely believed they could duck that question and, like Britain after 2016, like a normal country, tear themselves apart over arcane constitutional questions instead.

Israelis and Palestinians: From the Cycle of Violence to the Conversation of Mankind, Jonathan Glover (Polity, £20)

Jonathan Glover, the author of another book written before 7 October, had his finger closer to the pulse. Israelis and Palestinians was “on the verge of printing” when Hamas attacked, but with enough time to allow Glover to respond to that day’s events in a brief prologue, where he makes a virtue of his book’s unexpected timeliness. Glover is leant some credibility as an honest broker by the fact that he was thinking hard about the Israel–Palestine conflict at a time when it had generally slipped down the agenda.

I started his book quite sceptical about whether we really need another voice calling for “dialogue” and “conversation” in the Middle East. But the voice is an effective one, and Glover’s stature as a moral philosopher affords a unique and valuable perspective.

His analysis of the conflict is careful and balanced, rooted in a “sympathy with both peoples, tragically entwined over the same homeland”. He regards the Oslo Accords as a decent starting point for any resolution to the conflict, and laments that its promises have been left unfulfilled.

Drawing from an extensive knowledge of game theory and behavioural psychology, as well as his background in moral philosophy, Glover is more attuned than many analysts to the irrational forces at play. He takes seriously the conflict’s religious dimension, and cautions us against the assumption that “both sides are rational game-players”. “Irrational groups who hate each other can combine to kick over the table” — which, in the three decades since Oslo, is precisely what has happened.

All this makes Glover’s book quite a depressing read. At times one misses the chest-thumping enthusiasm of Senor and Singer. But, as their book attests, one can only thump one’s chest about Israel in good conscience if one dodges the Israel–Palestine conflict altogether — a dodge that is no longer feasible.

Things right now, as Glover says in his prologue, “look very dark”. In the end we can only join him in hoping that the irrationality on both sides will eventually give way, and that the conflict will one day seem as strange, to use one of his examples, as the cycle of Franco-German revanchism a century ago does to us. At the end of his prologue Glover invokes the famous line of Antonio Gramsci, a motto which ought to guide all sober reflection on Israel and Palestine: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.

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