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What can Israel teach the world? – opinion

The challenges that the reborn State of Israel has faced since its inception in 1948 are enormous.

The Jerusalem Post | By MICHAEL DICKSON, NAOMI L. BAUM | SEPTEMBER 3, 2020

The following is an abridged, edited excerpt from the introduction of the new book ISResilience: What Israelis Can Teach the World by Michael Dickson and Dr. Naomi L. Baum, now available to pre-order at

National symbols can provide a shortcut for understanding national character. The English are identified with the rose. The French are represented by the fleur-de-lis. Holland is associated with the tulip. Israelis have the cactus.

To be more precise, Israelis are often referred to as Sabras. A sabra is a cactus plant, and like the prickly pear, Sabras are known for their thorny exterior and their soft, sweet interior. Israelis are, by and large, proud of this description.

In his book The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew, sociologist Oz Almog explores the idea that the generation of Israelis born to the pioneers of the nascent, reborn State of Israel were both tough and self-assured, a product of nurture rather than nature.

Presumably, the DNA of the inhabitants of the modern state was not so different from that of their immigrant parents or their Israeli forebears who remained in the land for millennia, even as so many were dispersed abroad. Yet the net result was a sea change.

Israelis have had to be tough. Located in the most dangerous of regions, Israel is a tiny country, just nine miles wide at its narrowest point. The world’s only Jewish country, Israel has historically been surrounded by hostile states, with some bent on its destruction. More than 3,000 years old and just several decades young, Israel is an amalgam of the ancient and the modern.

The challenges that the reborn State of Israel has faced since its inception in 1948 are enormous. These include conventional war, terrorism, the absorption of millions of immigrants from different parts of the globe, and a concerted effort by regional enemies and their global allies to malign, sideline, and isolate the only truly free, democratic nation-state in the region.

Despite constant polls ranking Israelis among the “happiest” of world populations, life in Israel is insecure. Centuries of persecution have taught Israelis not to rely on others to rush to their defense. The modern State of Israel has held an outstretched arm of peace to enemies since its rebirth, and yet Israel is unable to fully trust the peace treaties it has already signed and the others that it so desperately seeks.

In a region where one Middle Eastern dictator in the morning might be replaced by another in the afternoon, life is uncertain at best. It is a biting, yet achingly true characterization of the very real threats continually faced by the Jewish state that the only people Israelis can truly depend on are themselves, something they have learned from experience.

Despite trying times, and against all odds, Israel has nevertheless prospered, and Israelis have demonstrated both a personal and national resilience that is recognized by all visitors to this tiny country. You often hear tourists to Israel bristle as their expectations of common courtesy and politeness brush up against the average Israeli’s frankness and blunt manner. Get to know the Israeli people up close, however, and their warmth and hospitality abounds.

Therein lies the contradiction. It is puzzling to tourists, as well as to those newcomers to Israel who have grown up abroad in more courteous and considerate societies. Adjectives used to describe Israelis include brash, skeptical, questioning, determined, stubborn, hot-headed and combative, yet those pair with warm, loving, family oriented, forgiving, optimistic and open.

When the chips are down and Israelis feel their collective back is up against the wall, both the exterior and interior characteristics of the Sabra take center stage. Outpourings of help, volunteerism and caring for the less fortunate soar to unheard-of heights during times of trouble. The characteristics that manifest themselves on an individual level are a microcosm of what happens on the national level.

Things do not always go Israel’s way; far from it. Danger, including very real existential threat, is always just around the corner. Following each terror attack, border skirmish, or all-out war, Israel in general and Israelis in particular go through a grimly recurrent cycle of picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and carrying on with life. That’s called resilience.

THE TERM RESILIENCE, or as it is known in Hebrew, hosen, refers to the ability to withstand difficulties, bounce back after troubles, and continue on, even in the face of gathering storm clouds. The concept includes within it two seemingly contradictory abilities: on the one hand the ability to withstand and hang tough, and on the other hand to be spontaneous, to improvise, and to dare to attempt hitherto untried solutions to difficult problems.

Psychologists have talked about “mental hardiness” or “coping” to characterize the essence of resilience, but while both ideas shed some light on the concept, the true definition is elusive. We seem to know what resilience is but have a hard time defining it.

The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and adds as a further clarification the word toughness. Resilience is this and much more. The source of the word resilience comes from the science of metallurgy, in which engineers measure how much stress or pressure various materials can withstand before breaking. The second Oxford definition, “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity,” relates to just that quality.

While the jury is out on the “real” definition of resilience, working definitions have developed out of necessity in planning interventions to help populations and individuals to recover in the aftermath of terror attacks, war, and natural disaster. Psychological literature has pointed the way to understanding what the essential elements of resilience are.

One of the conclusions of this research is that there are people who are born with internal characteristics that foster their resilience. People who are of above-average intelligence, good-looking and were raised in intact families tend to be more resilient. Unfortunately, these are characteristics that are not within our control.

On the other hand, even those who have grown up in adverse circumstances can find and foster resilience. In this book, we have preferred to focus on aspects of resilience that people can learn, grow from, impact, and possibly control, as well as lessons that we can all learn from some extraordinary Israelis who have overcome significant challenges.

The Talmud (in Ta’anit 2a) teaches us that God holds the keys to childbirth, rain (which alludes to material sustenance), and reincarnation, but leaves the rest to us. To our minds, that means that resilience is in our hands. In the pages to follow, we will focus on those keys to resilience that we can control. What exactly are those keys? They include empathy, flexibility, and meaning. While this list is not exhaustive, these three keys, to our minds essential, will help us to analyze the outstanding people who have shared their stories with us and enable us to learn what we can take into our own lives in order to grow our resilience.

In our book, we explore these “ISResilience keys” and set out to meet resilient Israelis and understand where their inner strength comes from. Our journey has taken us the length and breadth of Israel, meeting people from all walks of life. This adventure was at turns inspiring and emotional, deeply affecting and uplifting, often at the very same moment. It gave us a deeper understanding that Israel as a collective and Israelis as individuals have become particularly adept at turning a bad situation into an advantageous one – or, as the saying goes, turning lemons into lemonade.

Any Israeli could have given testimony for this book. Israelis routinely carry on with their day-to-day lives not just when things are calm and peaceful but when rockets are launched at them, through stabbing intifadas, during official conflicts and wars and unofficial waves of gruesome terrorism. And they don’t just survive, they thrive. Imbued in the DNA survival isn’t optional, it’s a necessity.

Some of the people we interviewed are easily recognizable; their acts of bravery, success and achievement are well known. Others are living out their daily lives with little public recognition, yet have overcome unimaginable adversity. Our journey took us to meet with Israelis young and old, male and female, black and white, Jewish and Arab – people with vastly different backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances. As we observed, talked with them, and explored their personal resilience, we began to extrapolate the keys to resilience in order to learn just how an individual can identify and strengthen his or her own powers of resilience. Our hope is that you will not only enjoy reading these stories, but will actually be able to apply some of the lessons to your own lives, developing your own “keys to resilience.”

Michael Dickson is executive director of StandWithUs Israel and a 2019 winner of the Bonei Zion Prize. In 2020 he was listed on the Global Jewish 100.

Naomi L. Baum, PhD, consults and facilitates workshops on resilience building in Israel and worldwide and was director of the Resilience Unit at Metiv-The Israel Psychotrauma Center for 12 years.

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