May 13, 2008.
Envy surrounds no country on Earth like the state of Israel, and with good
reason: by objective measures, Israel is the happiest nation on Earth at the 60th
anniversary of its founding. It is one of the wealthiest, freest and
best-educated; and it enjoys a higher life expectancy than Germany or the
But most remarkable is that Israelis appear to love life and hate death
more than any other nation. If history is made not by rational design but by the
demands of the human heart, as I argued last week , the light heart of the
Israelis in face of continuous danger is a singularity worthy of a closer look.
Israel is surrounded by neighbors willing to kill themselves in order to destroy it.
“As much as you love life, we love death,” Muslim clerics teach; the same
formula is found in a Palestinian textbook for second graders. Apart from the
fact that the Arabs are among the least free, least educated, and (apart from
the oil states) poorest peoples in the world, they also are the unhappiest, even
in their wealthiest kingdoms.
The contrast of Israeli happiness and Arab despondency is what makes peace
an elusive goal in the region. It cannot be attributed to material conditions of
life. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia ranks 171st on an international quality of life index,
below Rwanda. Israel is tied with Singapore on this index, although it should be
observed that Israel ranks a runaway first on my life-preference index, whereas
Singapore comes in dead last.
Even less can we blame unhappiness on experience, for no nation has suffered
more than the Jews in living memory, nor has a better excuse to be miserable.
Arabs did not invent suicide attacks, but they have produced a population pool
willing to die in order to inflict damage greater than any in history. One cannot
help but conclude that Muslim clerics do not exaggerate when they express
contempt for life.
Israel’s love of life, moreover, is more than an ethnic characteristic. Those who
know Jewish life through the eccentric lens of Jewish-American novelists such
as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, or the films of Woody Allen, imagine the Jews
to be an angst-ridden race of neurotics. Secular Jews in America are no more
fertile than their Gentile peers, and by all indications quite as miserable.
For one thing, Israelis are far more religious than American Jews. Two-thirds of
Israelis believe in God, although only a quarter observe their religion strictly.
Even Israelis averse to religion evince a different kind of secularism than we
find in the secular West. They speak the language of the Bible and undergo 12
years of Bible studies in state elementary and secondary schools.
Faith in God’s enduring love for a people that believes it was summoned for his
purposes out of a slave rabble must be part of the explanation. The most
religious Israelis make the most babies. Ultra-Orthodox families produce nine
children on average. That should be no surprise, for people of faith are more
fertile than secular people, as I showed in a statistical comparison across
Traditional and modern societies have radically different population profiles, for
traditional women have little choice but to spend their lives pregnant in
traditional society. In the modern world, where fertility reflects choice rather
than compulsion, the choice to raise children expresses love of life. The high
birthrate in Arab countries still bound by tradition does not stand comparison to
Israeli fertility, by far the highest in the modern world.
The faith of Israelis is unique. Jews sailed to Palestine as an act of faith, to
build a state against enormous odds and in the face of hostile encirclement,
joking, “You don’t have to be crazy to be a Zionist, but it helps.”
In 1903 Theodor Herzl, the Zionist movement’s secular founder, secured
British support for a Jewish state in Uganda, but his movement shouted him
down, for nothing short of the return to Zion of Biblical prophecy would requite
it. In place of a modern language the Jewish settlers revived Hebrew, a
liturgical language only since the 4th century BC, in a feat of linguistic volition
without precedent. It may be that faith burns brighter in Israel because Israel
was founded by a leap of faith.
If faith makes the Israelis happy, then why are the Arabs, whose observance of
Islam seems so much stricter, so miserable? Islam offers its adherents not love –
for Allah does not reveal Himself in love after the fashion of YHWH – but rather
success. “The Islamic world cannot endure without confidence in victory, that
to ‘come to prayer’ is the same thing as to ‘come to success’.
Humiliation – the perception that the ummah cannot reward those who
submit to it – is beyond its capacity to endure,” I argued in another location.
Islam, or “submission”, does not understand faith – trust in a loving God even
when His actions appear incomprehensible – in the manner of Jews and
Christians. Because the whim of Allah controls every event from the orbit of
each electron to the outcome of battles, Muslims know only success or failure
at each moment in time.
The military, economic and cultural failures of Islamic societies are intolerable in
Muslim eyes; Jewish success is an abomination, for in the view of Muslims it is
the due of the faithful, to be coveted and seized from the usurpers at the first
opportunity. It is not to much of a stretch to assert that Israel’s love of live, its
happiness in faith, is precisely the characteristic that makes a regional peace
impossible to achieve. The usurpation of the happiness that Muslims believe is
due to them is sufficient cause to kill one’s self in order to take happiness away
from the Jewish enemy. If Israel’s opponents fail to ruin Israel’s happiness,
there is at least a spark of hope that they may decide to choose happiness for
Why are none of the Christian nations as happy as Israel? Few of the European
nations can be termed “Christian” at all. Poland, the last European country with
a high rate of attendance at Mass (at about 45%), nonetheless shows a fertility
rate of only 1.27, one of Europe’s lowest, and a suicide rate of 16 per
100,000. Europe’s faith always wavered between adherence to Christianity as
a universal religion and ethnic idolatry under a Christian veneer. European
nationalism nudged Christianity to the margin during the 19th century, and the
disastrous world wars of the past century left Europeans with confidence
neither in Christianity nor in their own nationhood.
Only in pockets of the American population does one find birth rates
comparable to Israel’s, for example among evangelical Christians. There is no
direct way to compare the happiness of American Christians and Israelis, but
the tumultuous and Protean character of American religion is not as congenial
to personal satisfaction. My suspicion is that Israel’s happiness is entirely
It is fashionable these days to speculate about the end of Israel, and Israel’s
strategic position presents scant cause for optimism, as I contended recently.
Israel’s future depends on the Israelis. During 2,000 years of exile, Jews
remained Jews despite forceful and often violent efforts to make them into
Christians or Muslims. One has to suppose that they did not abandon Judaism
because they liked being Jewish. With utmost sincerity, the Jews prayed thrice
daily, “It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to acclaim the greatness of the
One who forms all creation, for God did not make us like the nations of other
lands, and did not make us the same as other families of the Earth. God did not
place us in the same situations as others, and our destiny is not the same as
If the Israelis are the happiest country on Earth, as the numbers indicate, it
seems possible that they will do what is required to keep their country, despite
the odds against them. I do not know whether they will succeed. If Israel fails,
however, the rest of the world will lose a unique gauge of the human capacity
for happiness as well as faith. I cannot conceive of a sadder event.