Dan Senor talks about his new book about Israeli grit in a fraught time
The Israeli grit is the theme of Dan Senor’s new book, co-authored with Saul Singer
Less than a month after Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel, killing or kidnapping more than 1,400 people in a horrific massacre, the Jewish state is in mourning. But despite the national grief, Israeli society has shown the world a remarkable degree of resilience, unity and social solidarity in the aftermath of the terrorist attack — particularly as Israel mobilizes to fight Hamas.
That Israeli grit is the theme of Dan Senor’s new book, co-authored with Saul Singer, The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World, which was written before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and hits bookshelves on Tuesday.
Senor and Singer are authors of the best-selling 2009 book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, which examined how a small, young country, in a nearly constant state of war and surrounded by enemies, could produce more successful startup companies than most stable Western nations.
Now, amid one of the darkest periods in the Jewish state’s history, Senor sat down with Jewish Insider to talk about The Genius of Israel, particularly the societal ties that bind Israelis together– what he calls “shock absorbers”– connection with friends and family and the sense of purpose serving in Israel’s army provides.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jewish Insider: Your book was written before Oct. 7. How does this crisis impact your thesis? Will Israelis still score high on the happiness index?
Dan Senor: We were finishing writing the book in the midst of the judicial reform crisis. We had developed our thesis and identified what we thought was extraordinary data that spoke to the health and happiness of the Israeli people and then we were finishing the book when the judicial reform crisis erupted.
Many people, including our publisher, asked if we were concerned that our book was coming out while Israel seems to be falling apart at the seams. There was a sense that the whole society was coming apart through these fault lines.
We argued two things. One, it is true that Israel was experiencing extreme [political] polarization when our book would be coming out, or so we thought – we didn’t expect our book to be coming out in the middle of a war. If 2023 has taught us anything, it’s that Israel is not immune to polarization. Polarization is all over the place, particularly in Western democracies.
What we argue in the book is that Israel has these societal shock absorbers built into their society, that as tense as internal debates get — as noisy [and] argumentative as they get — these societal shock absorbers do prevent the country from coming apart. We have seen that through Israeli history. People have a short memory but about every 10-15 years Israel has had some sort of debate where it seemed like that was it, Israel was going to go over a cliff. Israel [always] bounced back.
We lay out in the book all of the building blocks in Israeli society that we think prevent it from coming apart. We are seeing that right now.
We didn’t anticipate the Hamas invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, but what we are seeing as a result of the Hamas invasion is those building blocks at work. Those societal shock absorbers clicked in right away.
The story of Oct. 7 is obviously horrific and Israel’s security will likely never be the same again, but in terms of Israeli society, we are seeing the best – the solidarity, the coming together, the sense of the country as one big family. You’re seeing this incredible flourishing over the last few weeks.
We’re living through a very dark period, but there are rays of hope and light that you can see in Israel and how Israelis are coming together that are a reminder of what an exceptional society this is.
Israelis have much to be upset about with regard to the government, to various institutions and obviously there is a lot of concern and blame being directed at the security apparatus. But Israeli society is flourishing and I think Israelis are going to be as optimistic, upbeat and standing side by side when they wrestle with and build a future as they have been any time in their history.
JI: You have argued that mandatory service in Israel, rather than college attendance, encourages collectivism instead of individualism. Does that observation, coupled with the growing international threats the U.S. faces from China, Russia and Iran, argue for reimposition of a compulsory service in the U.S.?
What’s very important about Israel’s mandatory service, which most Israelis participate in, and growing numbers are, post-Oct. 7, from the communities that don’t participate. The IDF is getting …haredim [who] want to serve and tap into the national pride that they feel.
But taking a step back, obviously national service is important for providing Israel security. It also brings people together from all walks of life and gives them a context to work together, get to know each other and not view one another as the other, as a part of Israeli life that they don’t understand.
We interviewed many people in the book who point to their experiences and they have many different political viewpoints or very different upbringings than other people who serve with them in their military unit. And yet the service together, being in the same unit, has created a lifelong friendship, and even though they still have disagreements, whether from religious to secular or right to left, they feel connected to these “other people” and so they are members of their family.
This is one of the societal shock absorbers I’m talking about. As deep and divisive as Israeli society can get, it ultimately prevents the society from coming apart as a result. Other Western democracies don’t have that.
So whether the U.S. needs [mandatory service] for security reasons, I’ll leave that to other military experts to address. But other Western democracies, including the U.S., definitely need some kind of program to make people feel as though they are part of the same country, society and community. There’s been talk about civilian national service programs in the U.S., which I’m very intrigued by. I don’t know if military conscription is the answer for the U.S., but I do think there needs to be some kind of national experience where people feel connected to the national project of the United States, to be able to sense that the U.S. has a purpose and a mission and that they are part of it.
JI: Why is Israel’s life expectancy higher than their peers? Healthier lifestyles? Better social support?
I’m not an epidemiologist, but we talked to a lot of medical experts to try to understand this. There is not a clear answer, but one point that keeps coming through, from social scientists, medical experts and health longevity experts, is that people who score high on the life satisfaction measure, which is a proxy for happiness, tend to feel connected to community, to family, to friendships, they feel that their life has purpose and meaning.
In the book, we quote war correspondent Sebastian Junger about his experiences spending time with the American military in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He makes this point that people don’t mind hard work. What is problematic for people is feeling like they are unnecessary. One of the challenges for the Western world, [Junger said,] is that it has “perfected the art” of making people feel unnecessary. We have technological substitutes for what you do, we don’t need you, you’re not necessary.
Israel is the opposite. If Israel is the “start-up nation,” we also say Israel is the “necessary nation.” That is to say that everybody in Israel feels like they are necessary, they have a role to play. When you have a sense of a role, you have a mission and purpose, combined with connection to family and community – and Israel creates rituals that almost all Israelis participate in – that combination [leads] to Israel not having a loneliness crisis, not having a mental health crisis.
Israel ranks among the lowest in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] on every one of these metrics because people feel connected to each other. They spend time with their family literally every week. They feel connected to the country and feel like they have a sense of purpose. When you add all of that up, according to the data which we cite, it leads to a more meaningful and happier, more fulfilling life. That therefore, according to the experts, leads to a longer life.
Israel has a great health-care system, but many countries have great health-care systems. The diet of average Israelis is fine, not better or worse than other parts of the world. Obviously in Israel, you live under extraordinary stress. Stress is not a healthy input for a long life. So what else is going on in Israel that leads to people living longer?
We believe that leading a meaningful life of purpose and feeling connected to family, friends, community and country gives people something to live for.
JI: You were the co-author of the landmark publication Start-up Nation: How a Small Nation Makes a Big Difference. How might the current war impact Israel’s entrepreneurial ecosystem? How can startup CEOs keep their companies afloat when they need to spend months deployed in the reserves?
In 1990-91 [the first Gulf War], Israel dealt with the first real test of whether or not its startup tech ecosystem could make it through a major national security crisis. The entire country was shut down, everyone was in gas masks in sealed rooms and the government mandated that every company that wasn’t providing [an] essential service had to shut down.
Intel, headquartered in Santa Clara [Calif.], had been depending on Israel to produce the chips that powered at the time all of our laptops and many of our laptops today even. All of that work had been made outside of Israel and Intel had made a big bet on Israel when suddenly Israel was shut down. The Israeli leaders of Intel Israel defied the government mandate that they shut down and kept working. They all came in to work. One of the reasons everything shut down was because schools were closed and parents needed to be home with their kids. The Intel employees set up makeshift schooling and some would volunteer to take care of kids while others continued to work. They figured this all out on their own and continued to meet every milestone. The message sent to the global tech community was whatever you throw at Israel, they will keep functioning and they will deliver. A little over a decade later, Israel faced the Second Intifada, massive suicide bombings in major cities. It grounded some cities to a halt. The tech community kept meeting deadlines.
Since we wrote Start-Up Nation, the number of multinationals has grown by about three-and-a-half times, so now there’s between 400-500 major multinationals operating in Israel, almost every tech multinational and even non-tech multinationals have centers set up in Israel. So most of the global tech economy [and others] have made a decision to be in Israel and the geopolitical risk is manageable.
The challenge now, which is slightly different, is not whether a war on Israel’s homefront is going to shut down companies. The risk is now [that] Israel has to fight a war not on its homefront, even though it was attacked on its homefront. Many employees are being called up for reserves. What does it mean if you’re CEO or you’re head of business development and you’re called up to serve in reserves? Some venture capitalists I’ve spoken to have said at their companies about 10% of senior-level employees have been called up. Of course it slows down their capacity to deliver.
The Israeli tech community is incredibly resourceful and innovative and just like those employees at Intel, they will figure out how to make it work. But it’s definitely been a challenge. The situation cannot be in a steady state indefinitely. It’s a surge right now but if this is a multiyear war it will be a whole new world for Israel’s tech economy, something they have never experienced before.
[On] the flip side, I have seen such unbelievable on-the-ground training and innovative problem-solving right now from the tech community in the context of post-Oct. 7. It is the tech community that has come together on its own and collaborated on developing artificial intelligence tools to identify and trace Israelis taken hostage. They’ve created tools that the Ministry of Defense or any IDF unit could never have done with such speed. The Israeli tech community is getting real war-time training right now in how to innovate in the context of a war… making them more competitive globally.
JI: What can Americans do to support this essential segment of Israeli society? Buy more Israeli goods and services? Invest in more Israeli startups?
I would look at major American tech companies with a major presence in Israel. They are in Israel because it’s in their interest, they’re not doing it out of love of Zionism. They are in Israel because in order to be competitive in the world they need to be partnering with Israeli tech, they need that edge. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t thank them and encourage them. Many of these companies have made very strong statements standing with Israel. Any American who has any relationship with big multinational companies based in the U.S., tech or non-tech, with venture capital investors, constantly hearing from Americans that it is in America’s interest to stand by their Israeli colleagues, that’s the most important thing in terms of the tech community.
The other thing American Jews, and American supporters of Israel, need to keep reinforcing is the importance of the U.S. government standing shoulder-to-shoulder [with Israel]. It needs to continue. If Israel cannot rely on the U.S., it’s got nobody.
America is doing this because it’s in America’s interest to deter escalation in the region. One of America’s interests is a strong, totally aligned Israel-U.S. relationship. Anyone over here who cares about the Israel-U.S. relationship and the Israeli tech scene, needs to keep reminding U.S. officials about why the relationship with Israel is not just about shared values, as important as shared values are. It’s not just about shared history, or shared security interests. We have shared economic interests. The number of Israelis in Israel that are powering the strength of American companies globally is staggering.