Nathan Jeffay speaks to the co-author of a new book exploring how one small nation has prevailed in the face of adversity
Jewish News/Times of Israel
March 28, 2021
Michael Dickson is a man on a mission: to export Israeli resilience.
When he moved from London to Israel 15 years ago, this particular trait of his newly-adopted country began to fascinate him, and he has now published a book exploring it.
He coined a new portmanteau and called the book Isresilience: What Israelis Can Teach the World. It is getting attention far beyond the Jewish community, with a translation into Norwegian and Spanish in the pipeline.
“This is my love letter to the Israeli people, but it’s more than that, it’s sharing their life lesson,” says Dickson. “We’re inspired by their ability to move on despite facing tragedy, and the point of the book is to allow others – including people who may have no connection at all to Israel – to learn from this.”
The book has a particular resonance as societies cope with the impact of the coronavirus crisis and hopefully enter a post-pandemic reality, he adds.
Co-written with psychologist Dr Naomi L Baum, the 172-page publication features interviews – “based on long discussions that made us laugh and cry” – that explore the idea of Israeli resilience: how it is manifested and what makes it so strong.
“Often, Israelis take their resilience for granted,” notes Dickson, 43, a long-time executive director of advocacy organisation StandWithUs Israel.
“We’d often find that interviewees would say something very matter-of-factly as if it isn’t interesting, and we would be left saying: ‘What you just said was incredible; let’s talk about that more.’”
The interviewees range from well-known figures such as Natan Sharansky, tapped because of his famous resolve when in Soviet prison, and Israel Meir Lau, child Holocaust survivor and former Chief Rabbi, to lesser-known Israelis.
There is climber Nadav Ben-Yehuda, who abandoned an Everest mission to rescue a stranded Turkish climber, and Shula Molla, an Ethiopian Jewish woman, who walked through the desert to get to Israel and become a citizen.
“There are so many stories of inspiration in Israel – in a sense we could’ve interviewed almost anyone – and the bottom line is that the nation is good at thinking on its feet,” Dickson reflects. “We are great at reviewing options and changing mid-course, as seen in recent months by the success of businesses and individuals in ‘pivoting’ for the pandemic, as well as Israel’s strong embrace of vaccines, which led to its impressive performance in this area.
“We were inspired in our interviews with people like Noam Gershony, a pilot who fell from a helicopter and was left with such severe injuries that he couldn’t return to work and taught himself wheelchair tennis. He competed in the London 2012 Paralympics and won Israel’s first gold medal.
“Obviously his pivot is much larger than anything most of us would ever need, but it illustrates the trait and the spirit that is found across Israel.”
Dickson believes Israeli resilience is due, in large part, to the fact that on a national level, citizens are accustomed to facing difficulties.
“My children, aged nine to 16, have a very different childhood to the one I had in England,” he reflects. “They have seen the stabbing intifada, rocket attacks and war. They have run to bomb shelters when needed and remember the kidnapping of young Israelis. You can’t shield children from all of this, even if you wanted to.
“These things are terrifying, but the upshot is that living with this builds a resilience that I see in my own kids and in society in general.”
In the book, he highlights three aspects of Israelis’ response to adversity that he suggests builds resilience.
“One is empathy, meaning the ability to be aware of your situation and the situation of others,” he said. “When you can do this in the middle of a crisis, it allows you to identify your own feelings and not to avoid them, and to understand those of others.
Israel Meir Lau, child Holocaust survivor and former Chief Rabbi, arriving in Haifa Israel.
“This is good because if people are afraid of their emotions they shut down and become numb.”
The national calendar shows this ability to empathise with how everyone feels, Dickson observes. The joy of Passover is quickly followed by the more sombre Yom Hazikaron or memorial day, which then morphs into the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day.
Another quality is flexibility, and the third secret to Israeli resilience, Dickson asserts, is a flair for “finding meaning” after tragedy or hardship.
“We spoke to Sherri Mandell, whose son was murdered in a 2001 terror attack. Such a thing never leaves a parent.”
At the same time, Sherri spoke about what she had been able to do in memory of Koby, personally, in their family, and in terms of the many projects they set up in his memory, like summer camps for families of terror victims, and all that these projects have done.
“We don’t talk about ‘bouncing back’, as you never bounce back to where you were. We borrow the idea of family therapist Froma Walsh that we actually ‘bounce forwards’, that if you make meaning, it takes you to
a different place.”
Isresilience: What Israelis Can Teach The World by Michael Dickson and Dr Naomi L Baum is published by Gefen Publishing priced £17.99 (hardback). Available now
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