Exploring What Israelis Can Teach the World
ISResilience: What Israelis Can Teach the World by Michael Dickson and Naomi L Baum (Gefen Publishing, 2020).
The authors of the above volume, Michael Dickson and Naomi L. Baum, decided to invent a portmanteau term for its title. They chose to do so, one imagines, because they believe that the issue they are concerned with is unique and needs its very own descriptive label. Unpacked, it proclaims that this book finds that resilience is an inherent element of the Israeli psyche, and that other nations and communities could benefit from emulating it. The authors do so by examining the history of 14 extraordinary individuals.
“By any rational analysis,” write the authors, “Israel should not exist at all, let alone be a thriving powerhouse of a country. Yet as we rediscovered via the personalities we met on this journey, Israel defies reason, logic, and historical precedent, and these amazing Israelis embody the wonder that their country represents.”
They do indeed, but they don’t explain it. A good many authors have tried to identify the factors that account for the outstanding contributions to the world made by Jews in general, and Israelis in particular. In his recent book Genius and Anxiety, distinguished UK writer Norman Lebrecht attempted to solve the mystery by examining the lives of people of Jewish origin over nearly two centuries. He discovers certain common characteristics, but does not claim to have identified what the magic ingredient might be.
In her recent book Chutzpah, Inbal Arieli ascribed Israel’s success as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship to that well-known Israeli characteristic. This, she believed, is inculcated into Israeli children through the nation’s approach to child rearing, which favors independence, challenges, and risk taking.
Authors Dickson and Baum, in their account of the remarkable Dr. Amit Goffer, also reflect that view. Goffer, a notably innovative individual even before the accident that left him a quadriplegic, used that appalling experience to help paraplegics, once inevitably confined to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives, get back on their legs. His own injuries were too severe to allow him to take advantage of his invention, so he proceeded to produce a more advanced system that enabled him too, and other similarly affected paraplegics, to stand upright and move about.
“Goffer chose to be spurred forward by his accident rather than set back,” write Dickson and Baum. “As a result, his innovations have transformed the world of paraplegics.” Goffer believes that ingenuity is inherent in Israeli society. He feels the Israeli educational process fosters non-conformity and creativity, and that he himself personifies this trait, which he characterizes as a product of ancient Judaism and modern chutzpah.
Goffer’s philosophy acknowledges twin sources for the slippery concept that the authors are trying to get a grip on — the Jewish and the Israeli. In the 14 individuals selected by the authors as exemplars of Israeli resilience, these sources exist in varying proportions. Holocaust survivor Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel for 10 years, surely represents the Jewish end of this spectrum. In 1945, at the age of eight, a Jew but not an Israeli, he arrived in the country imbued with the will to live his life according to his dead parents’ wishes. In January 2020, at the ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Lau informed the distinguished audience that his mother would tell him: “Remember that you are a Jew. Wherever you go, remember you are a part of a rabbinic chain.”
Natan Sharansky spent nine years in a Soviet Gulag, representing tens of thousands of “refuseniks” who were demanding to be allowed to immigrate to Israel. In defying the authorities and maintaining his dignity in the face of isolation and intimidation, Sharansky demonstrated an extraordinary degree of courage sourced from his intense Zionist convictions. It was only once he had made it to Israel that he perhaps acquired the element of Israeli resilience, the capacity to bounce back from adversity, resulting in his highly successful career in public life.
An example of “ISResilience” with not a trace of a Jewish element is provided by the unusual and inspiring story of Yoseph Haddad, an Israeli Arab. If any individual could be said to exhibit the quality of resilience to the full, it is surely this extraordinary man. Born in Haifa, and brought up in Nazareth, Haddad chose to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces even though, as an Israeli Arab, he could have avoided military service altogether. He had a distinguished military career, becoming a commander in the Golani infantry brigade.
In the summer of 2006, fighting Hezbollah on the Lebanese front, he was caught in the blast of an anti-tank missile and his foot was blown off. Evacuated to a hospital in Nahariya, he underwent a series of surgical procedures and, amazingly, his foot was reattached to his leg. As he came round, he was told that he would eventually be able to walk, but that he would always limp. Haddad had other ideas. He intended not only to walk without a limp, but to play his beloved soccer again. He applied himself to his rehabilitation with determination. One year later, he walked into his consultant’s office with a ball under his arm, and demonstrated how he had made good on his word. “Not only does he walk without a limp nowadays,” write Dickson and Baum, “Yoseph runs 10 kilometers (six miles) every week.”
ISResilience tells the heroic, touching, inspiring stories of 14 remarkable Israelis who have suffered misfortune of one kind or another, and demonstrated the ability to overcome their adverse circumstances. This capacity is surely not confined to Israelis, but it seems to be hard-wired into the Israeli spirit in a unique way. Some contend it is because of how Israeli children are reared, some say it is through the Israeli educational system, some like Col. (res.) Miri Eisen, who became the IDF’s official spokesperson to the world, believe it is because of the military service that most young Israelis undergo. At a stage when most countries send young people to college or out into the workforce, she told the authors, Israel is putting them into a very stressful environment but giving them authority and responsibility, as well as a framework and a purpose.
Whatever the magic constituents, into which an element of Jewish flair might often be added, in ISResilience, authors Dickson and Baum illustrate an identifiable facet of Israel’s national character, and do so in an eminently readable, and often extremely moving, volume.
Neville Teller is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book, Trump and the Middle East: 2016-2020, came out in July. He blogs at a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.
A version of this article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.