In the crucible of the October 7 war, Israel unveils a clandestine weapon that sets it apart: the extraordinary solidarity of its people. This societal resilience, deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric, is no fleeting phenomenon; it is the fruit of a distinctive culture of service, meticulously fostering a profound sense of belonging and purpose. The mobilization witnessed in Israeli society, encompassing both military and civilian spheres, is unparalleled. A diverse tapestry of individuals—religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, right and left, tech CEOs and the socioeconomically challenged periphery, Arabs and Jews—converges not only in sentiment but in collective action. Shoulder to shoulder, they support the families affected by the toll of war, unifying in purpose and action.
This exceptional ability to mobilize prompts a question explored in the new book, "The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World." The inquiry delves into the wellsprings of Israel's social strength, unveiling insights that resonate with the challenges faced by modern societies, notably in the United States.
One lens through which to scrutinize this phenomenon is the divergent visions and values shaping the Israeli elite compared to their counterparts in liberal democracies. In the United States, the currency of merit and progress is the university degree, contributing to a stark "diploma divide." The consequences of lacking this credential are profound, with the gap in income between college graduates and high school diploma holders nearly doubling from 1990 to 2021. The shift has left young adults without a college degree facing increased poverty rates and heightened vulnerability to societal challenges.
In contrast, Israel's unique culture of service plays a pivotal role in fostering a sense of community and shared purpose. The book explores how this approach stands in stark contrast to the hyper-competitive atmosphere surrounding college admissions in the United States, where real community service often takes a backseat to resume-padding endeavors. The communal strength observed in Israel's response to crisis offers a potent lesson in resilience and unity, presenting an alternative model for societies grappling with their own deep-seated challenges.
In the intricate tapestry of education systems globally, Israel stands apart with a distinctive approach that transforms meritocracy. While many systems primarily value individual academic excellence, Israel's meritocracy places paramount importance on service, specifically the commitment to the most challenging military endeavors. This significant deviation reshapes the concept of merit, emphasizing communal values over individualistic pursuits.
Unlike traditional meritocracies, where academic achievements often determine success, Israel's criteria for merit involve seeking and excelling in demanding military service. It's a collective judgment based on how individuals contribute to society and their country, fostering a sense of solidarity rather than individual accomplishment.
In this paradigm, selection for top military units goes beyond individual talents; it hinges on one's ability to collaborate effectively within a team. Recognizing that missions are team efforts, individuals must demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice everything for a cause larger than themselves.
The societal impact of selecting individuals based on their commitment to service is profound. It shapes the aspirations of young people, influencing how they structure their lives throughout adulthood. This ethos extends beyond individual achievements, emphasizing traits such as high motivation, problem-solving skills, determination, self-criticism, and a capacity to collaborate within teams—values prized by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Conversations with figures like Nadav Zafrir, an Israeli entrepreneur and former commander of an elite tech unit in the IDF, highlight the depth of this perspective. For Zafrir, the decision to return his family to Israel was driven by the desire for his children to undergo military service rather than attend an American university. This choice reflects a belief in the holistic and character-building nature of military service as a form of education, emphasizing qualities that extend far beyond academic prowess. It's a unique lens through which Israel shapes its societal fabric, valuing service as a cornerstone of merit and education.
In the realm of Israel's Defense Forces (IDF), merit is not confined to academic perfection but extends to service, drawing from a vast and diverse talent pool. This unique approach, as articulated by former IDF chief of staff Gen. Aviv Kohavi, ensures that many star performers, who might be sidelined in conventional meritocracies demanding flawless academic records, find a platform to shine.
The IDF's meritocracy is distinct in its mission—it's not about exclusivity but about maximizing the human potential of every draftee. Unlike universities, whose prestige often hinges on rejecting applicants, the IDF is motivated to discern and cultivate the potential within each individual. The screening process, refined over decades, employs a superior prediction model, providing insights that transcend the understanding of teenagers about their own capabilities.
However, the question arises: Is this merely substituting one elite for another? What about those who don't ascend to the pinnacle in either system? The IDF acknowledges the imperfections, with instances where individuals might have had more impactful roles. Yet, it equally boasts tales of young people entrusted with challenges and responsibilities beyond their imagination, transcending the boundaries of conventional meritocratic systems.
In other countries, meritocracies often emphasize individual achievement, contributing to escalating competition for top schools and jobs requiring degrees. Simultaneously, a surge in individualism has led to smaller families and a heightened focus on work as a source of meaning. Israel's unique model fosters a sense of community where young people not only meet but live and work closely together, emphasizing shared experiences over differences in political, socioeconomic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.
Former IDF chief Kohavi underscores the exceptional aspect of Israel's situation. While polarization is a global concern, Israel, through its mandatory military service, offers a built-in mechanism for fostering solidarity. The shared experience of serving, whether for two years or throughout adult lives in reserve duty, provides a foundation for unity that goes beyond mere rhetoric. In a world increasingly polarized, the IDF's emphasis on solidarity built around shared experiences stands as a compelling counterforce, offering valuable insights for nations grappling with internal divisions.
In the tapestry of modern societies, the threads binding individuals seem fragile, even as part of a shared humanity, country, culture, or religion. However, many Israelis, spanning ethnic, political, and socioeconomic spectrums, share something even more potent than a common experience—they share a profound sense of belonging. Former IDF chief Gen. Aviv Kohavi delves into this essence, highlighting that the intensity of military service goes beyond forging lasting friendships; it cultivates a powerful feeling of belonging that extends beyond the individual.
"What happens in the belly of the ship? In the hull of the tank, or in the warehouse on a base?" Kohavi muses, emphasizing that military service creates a deep sense of ownership of the country. This feeling of belonging, he argues, goes beyond keeping a society together—it profoundly impacts personal well-being. Studies, such as the Mayo Clinic's research, underline the connection between a sense of belonging and mental health. Depression, anxiety, and suicide often correlate with a lack of belonging.
In the broader context, the text argues that for modern societies to endure and flourish, a common bond must be constructed. While individualism holds importance, it must be counterbalanced by a commitment to collective service. Humans inherently crave connection to something larger than themselves, a sentiment often neglected in societies that prioritize individual achievement over shared purpose. Israel, as the authors contend, excels in fostering a sense of being part of a larger whole, instilling the belief that every individual is essential to play their part. In a world grappling with the challenge of making people feel necessary, Israel stands as a testament to the art of cultivating belonging and emphasizing the significance of collective service. Dan Senor and Saul Singer, co-authors of "The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World," offer profound insights into how Israel's approach to belonging serves as a crucial ingredient for societal resilience and personal fulfillment.
In conclusion, "The Power of Belonging: Israel's Unyielding Bond Beyond Divides" explores the profound impact of a shared sense of belonging in Israel, transcending ethnic, political, and socioeconomic divisions. The intensity of military service, as articulated by former IDF chief Gen. Aviv Kohavi, not only forges lasting friendships but cultivates a robust feeling of ownership of the country among its citizens. This deep sense of belonging, the text argues, is not only instrumental in keeping a society together but also plays a crucial role in individual well-being.
The authors stress the importance of this concept in the broader context of modern societies. In a world where individualism often takes precedence, the text suggests that societies must strike a balance by emphasizing collective service and shared purpose. It highlights the inherent human need to be part of something larger than oneself, a sentiment crucial for personal fulfillment and mental health.
Ultimately, the text positions Israel as a model for cultivating a sense of belonging, making individuals feel essential and needed in the larger collective. In an era where many societies grapple with increasing divisions, Israel's approach stands as a testament to the art of fostering unity and emphasizing the significance of shared commitment and service. The authors, Dan Senor and Saul Singer, draw on their book, "The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World," to underscore the enduring strength derived from a shared sense of belonging in Israel.