ToI podcast'We went from the depths of division to the heights of unity'

What Matters Now to Saul Singer: Refounding Israel the day after the war

Co-author of ‘The Genius of Israel’ explains how unity of purpose is essential to the health of the country. While Israeli society presents a unified front right now, will it last?

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

For Israelis, there is before October 7 and after. So the idea of a book called “The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World” written during those “before” times may not feel like the most relevant reading material.

But it is.

“Start-Up Nation” authors Saul Singer and Dan Senor have again joined forces to dissect what makes Israelis tick — and keep on ticking.

One conclusion? It’s all about the unity of purpose. If that unity was once what made us strong, well, “now it’s become existential. If we don’t stay unified, we’re just going to go into a downward spiral,” says co-author Saul Singer.

So this week, we speak with bestselling author Saul Singer and find out what matters now.

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Saul, thank you so much for joining me today in Jerusalem’s Nomi Studios.

Saul Singer: Great to be here, Amanda.

You know, I enjoy historical fiction, and since Israel is right now in the middle of a war, at times when I was reading your new book, “The Genius of Israel,” I felt like this was historical fiction. I felt like, wow, I wish I were living in that Israel, pre-war Israel, this Israel, this “genius” of Israel, the Israel that put the satellite Bereishit almost on the moon, the Israel that talks about how happy we are, the Israel that talks about how every week we have a Thanksgiving dinner.

But then I realized that there are two words that you define in the book that are still the Israel that we’re living in today. Those two words are hevre and gibush. So let’s begin by defining the word hevre.

So, both the words are related because they’re both about the sense of group that we have in Israel, the sense of solidarity. Believe it or not, I mean — “ancient history” — a few weeks ago, we were in the massive protests, and it seems we were so divided. That’s exactly the story here, it is that we went from the depths of division to the heights of unity. But, this book is really about that kind of sense that we’re not just individuals here. We are part of a group. This is what society is telling you all the time from a very young age.

So hevre is your friends, is any sort of group. It could be the company you’re in. It could be the people you’re going on a hike with. It’s a kind of sense that we’re part of something together. Gibush is kind of the process of bringing people together, which is such a large, such an important value here. So that’s why you don’t really have a word for it in English, because we work at it and we’re constantly trying to form tighter groups, whether it’s in youth movements or in the army or in companies or everywhere.

Cover of ‘The Genius of Israel’ (courtesy)

It’s so true. I think the most accurate translation would be in American terms at least, is team-building. So gibush, they have in workplaces, of course, team building exercises. But as you just mentioned, this gibush idea is from preschool. It’s not even in primary school. It’s from preschool. This idea of everyone is responsible for everyone else. Everyone is together. Yes, the people who you most associate with are your hevre are the people that you are linked to emotionally, physically and responsibility-wise. I’m seeing that right now.

I mentioned to you before we started recording that my oldest son is joining the army tomorrow, and he is joining what is called “Garin Nachal.” And he did a year of service before joining the army with the same people he’s going to serve in the army with. They’ll be together in the army and they’ll be together serving in communities as well. He said to me: “You know mom, I’m going in and I feel already that I’m responsible for other people. It gives me a sense of purpose.”

The sense of purpose is the other theme that I want to talk to you about that comes through your book. How important is that here in Israel?

It’s critical in terms of our well-being. You know, humans aren’t meant to be alone. You look at every study about happiness and you ask, so what is the key to happiness? That’s what people want. It’s relationships, it’s friends, it’s family, it’s hevre — that’s what explains the crazy thing.

We talk about Israel being the fourth in the world in happiness, according to this UN report. People think, well, we’re not a very happy country right now. But I think because it’s about human connection and it’s about purpose — and when they say happiness, it’s not happiness, it’s life satisfaction — that it’s still going to be high. And, it can’t get much higher than fourth, but it could be higher in a way because I hope that we’re going to be more bonded after this. We could be less [bonded] and that would be more than tragic, it would be an existential problem. But in some ways, we may be more together than we were before, certainly than during the protest.

So let’s put all of these things together, the gibush, the hevre, the purpose, and talk about what’s happening here in Israel now since October 7.

So we are now seeing crazy amounts of solidarity. I have to introduce another Hebrew concept here, which is “tzav shmoneh.” Tzav shmoneh means “order number eight.” It’s what you’re called up [with]. You get this kind of recording on your phone: “Please come into your unit.” And everybody was receiving this. We have 360,000 or so people in miluim, in reserve duty, which is more than the armies of France and Germany are almost combined. It’s a crazy number.

So it seems like everybody’s been called up. But it’s not just being called up to the military. You’re being called up no matter who you are. You’re called up to volunteer, to cover for all the people. Everybody’s covering for someone. It’s a society that’s been mobilized in a crazy way and there’s nothing to compare it to. It’s not like the US after 9/11 or something. It’s not just a feeling that we’re more together, it’s everybody’s personally involved doing something.

‘The Genius of Israel’ co-author Dan Senor. (Dor Malka)

This ties into your previous book, “Start-Up Nation,” because a lot of the people who are driving the networks of the volunteer army that we have going on right now are from this high-tech sphere. Talk about that a little bit.

So this was a crazy surprise during the protest because the hi-tech sector was the most apolitical you could imagine. They almost were acting as if they weren’t in Israel because their startups are global markets and they’re busy in the world, citizens of the world, sort of. Suddenly when this protest erupted — when they felt that democracy that they took for granted was threatened — they just organized like crazy and became the leaders among the leaders of the protests. They pulled out the kind of social nuclear weapon, which is refusing to serve in the military. But of course, when we were attacked, automatically everyone ran to their units right away. Of course, you had people from all over the world coming back to Israel filling the airplanes, desperate to get back to go to the front to fulfill their tzav shmoneh.

Now you just mentioned that they’re running to go back to their units. We’re talking about the hi-tech industry. So it has to be defined as well that the hi-tech industry is often the people who became the officers in the army or who served in special units, or who were the natural leaders or the leaders who were trained — and this is in your book — in the youth movements that are so dominant in Israel. So talk about how all of this filters together.

When we wrote “Start-Up Nation,” of course we spent a lot of time talking about the military. But even we, I don’t think, fully appreciated how the society is training you to be part of something larger than yourself. And you see this in the youth movements, this aspect of gibush.

One thing that struck me sort of as an American who grew up in the US and you come here and your kids are going to high school or elementary school and you figure out you notice that the teachers and the parents and the students are upset if the class, their homeroom class isn’t kind of brought together. That’s worse than not teaching well enough, that they’re not learning well enough. Most important thing is they’re a unit. It’s crazy because in America the classroom isn’t even a thing, let alone brought together.

So this is happening very, very early on. The epitome of it is when you get to the military because you have to work as a unit or else you can’t accomplish your mission. But society is training you all along. Of course, after the army, that’s how you live. Those are your values. Your values are much less individualistic than in most modern, wealthy democracies.

View of the old house of first Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion, at kibbutz Sde Boker, Israeli Negev desert. July 12, 2020. Photo by Moshe Shai/FLASH90

So I just had a very interesting experience with the push-pull of individualism and the unit. I was in a kibbutz called Samar near Eilat and it’s still a kibbutz, meaning it’s still really a unified unit. All their money is pooled together. What was very interesting about this kibbutz is that each house was different. Each person could build their own different house and each person could decide if they were going to work or not work. Somehow the kibbutz absorbed all of this because of this yin-yang kind of situation in which some people decided to work a lot, some people decided to work less, and then some people decided that in a month or so, I’m going to work a lot. Really interesting. How do you see the kibbutz movement and things of this nature feeding into what we’re talking about here as well?

So the kibbutz movement, of course, is the extreme example of this kind of unity and bonding. But even though it’s a small number of people, it was tremendously influential in the founding of the state. At that time, all the officers, it seems all the pilots and everything, came from the kibbutz movement, a tremendous cultural influence. It also kind of represented the socialist ethos of the founders. They were all socialists.

Some Israelis say: “Well, our solidarity is waning.” They complain with a kind of nostalgia for the solidarity of the founding generation. But to me, it shows that it’s such a huge value in Israel, that that is the ideal that we hold ourselves to. It may be less than the founders, but in a way, I think what this has done to us is we have to refound the country. In a way, we have become the founding generation after four generations, which is a crazy thing, but that connects with what I was saying before, which is that maybe we’ll have more solidarity than we had before.

Many of the hostages came from these kibbutzim along the border with Gaza. One can’t help but look at how much their communities are pulling together, how they’ve moved as communities to different locations throughout the country. I believe there are 200,000 internally displaced people right now in Israel. Do you think that in this new refounding of the nation, having seen how cohesive these communities are, do you think that this will influence Israeli society in the future as well?

Well, what’s interesting is that some of the people from these kibbutzim are saying, “When we rebuild, we’re going to double in size.” And that goes back to what you were saying about purpose. I think that people who go live in a kibbutz in an area that’s challenged, let’s say, that there’s a sense of purpose in that. There’s a sense of pioneering, old-fashioned pioneering in that. The kibbutzim were created in places that were on purpose, were kind of trying to settle areas that were less settled. That was part of the pioneering, of course, making the desert green, agriculture. You read [first prime minister David] Ben Gurion’s memoir and it was all about tilling the land, just physically. That’s how you build the country.

The founders of Kibbutz Malkiya, on the Lebanon border, en route to the kibbutz in 1949. From the collection of Ferol and Rivkaleh Atzmon. (Courtesy: Bitmuna.)
The founders of Kibbutz Malkiya, on the Lebanon border, en route to the kibbutz in 1949. From the collection of Ferol and Rivkaleh Atzmon. (Courtesy: Bitmuna.)

That’s fascinating. Of course, the kibbutzim that are being displaced aren’t just along the Gaza border, but also along the border with Lebanon. That plays into what you’re saying about having settled in the more, “dangerous areas” to spread out the Israeli settlement. And, you know, obviously as a mother of seven, I’ve always been very envious of the kibbutzim for the laundry system that they have there. But being a mother of seven, that’s another theme that you bring forward in your book and how fertility rates in Israel are, shall we say, a bit higher than in most of the Western world.

They’re much higher. This is a huge part that people don’t think about in terms of the happiness and optimism and orientation of society, because every single rich country now in the world has dropped below replacement. The fertility rate, replacement is 2.1, below that, you are shrinking and aging, and above that, you’re young and growing. We’re the only ones that are young and growing. And it’s by an enormous margin.

The OECD average is like 1.6, and we’re about three. So double. What that means is, compared to Japan, by 2050 or so, we’re going to almost double in population and they’re going to lose about a third. Our average age here is about 30. By 2050, it’s going to go up to maybe 33. In Europe, though, the average is like 47. So that’s like 15 years older!

So we are a young and growing country. These other countries, they’ve got to feel like they’re kind of winding down in a way. While we’re just beginning. This is a huge difference in terms of innovation, dynamism, the mood. We have a sense of future here, even at these incredibly difficult times. I think we’re not going to lose that. Again, maybe we’re going to be even more determined to rebuild.

Now, in terms again, about the fertility, most people outside Israel would say, yeah, that’s the ultra-Orthodox, the haredim. I, of course, am living proof that is not true. But there is no doubt that the ultra-Orthodox sector is growing at a more rapid rate than secular Israel. And there are economists, of course, like [Tel Aviv University Prof.] Dan Ben David, who point to this as one of the major, major things to watch out for in Israeli society. So what we’ve been talking about until now is mostly normative, shall we say, secular Israel or national-religious Israel. How do you see everything we’ve been talking about in the ultra-Orthodox society as well?

If you had to put your finger on one thing in terms that worries us a bit about the solidarity and unity of the country is the issue of the ultra-Orthodox, because we have all these different groups that are kind of in a balance of some kind. The Arabs and the secular and the religious and the ultra-Orthodox, very ethnic differences, all these things. But if one group is growing in population substantially, that could kind of upset the balance, especially if there’s tension. There is a lot of tension right now. In a way, that tension, I think, was underlying the judicial protests, the kind of fear of secular and even religious, normal religious society, that we’re going to get overwhelmed by the political power of the ultra-Orthodox.

Now, in the book we show that the demographic figures people use are probably exaggerated because the ultra-Orthodox losing — they have a high birth rate — but they’re also losing people. That’s one thing.

But more important than the numbers is do we continue to be us and them? Are they a “them” to “us” and are we a “them” to “them?” And I think the way to think about it is so long as that’s true, we have a problem. They can’t be alien to us and vice versa. So that’s the challenge because if they’re not a “them,” then it doesn’t matter how many there are — they’re part of Israel. Some people say that the haredim could be the biggest aliyah to Israel in a way. They are becoming more Israeli and we saw thousands of them trying to get into military service just now. So there are positive signs, but there’s a lot of work to do in it and it’s nothing guaranteed.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men arrive at the IDF recruitment center to volunteer amid the ongoing war against Hamas, October 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

That’s interesting, what you’re saying. I would have to say, just from living here since 1999, that the “us and them” of, shall we say, national-religious and secular Israel has been for the most part erased, maybe not entirely. But the “us and them” of the ultra-Orthodox is maybe even potentially growing stronger? I don’t know. If you look at Jerusalem where you live, every time a large wave of ultra-Orthodox move into a neighborhood, the neighborhood’s dynamic shifts drastically. Do you see that changing here?

That’s part of the tension. But to me the biggest part is this sense that the haredim aren’t pulling their weight and the opposite, that the non-haredim are supporting them, they’re not working, they’re not serving in the army. There is tremendous resentment against this. In a way, secular society during these protests has said we’re not going to take this anymore. The war even more so, I think gives that feeling.

But I also think the opposite feeling has also grown. The haredim are becoming more Israeli, they’re more on smartphones, they’re speaking Hebrew and learning more. Their economic situation has been improving somewhat, which creates enormous pressure to work and they know that the current situation is not sustainable. So the question is, do we come to some kind of compromise that brings them more into society where people feel that they are contributing what they need to contribute, whether it’s in the army or not? That would change things a lot.

And if you think of it in terms of post-October 7, which everything unfortunately is colored by, you have heard of initiatives by the ultra-Orthodox to support the soldiers, to support the reservists. That’s something we’re hearing about. Let’s talk about how the Arab Israeli society fits into “The Genius of Israel.”

That’s another positive surprise during the war. In 2014, we saw some Arab rioting in the context of a Gaza war, a Gaza operation. So you project that forward, you think, okay, this is even worse. Of course, we’re going to have even worse rioting. The opposite happens.

You have polls showing that Israeli Arab identification with Israel is actually at a record high. You have, I think, a lot of understanding among Israeli Arabs who are seeing the Israeli media, not just the Arabic media, and they’re seeing that Arabs were killed by Hamas. Arabs are hostages. There was a Bedouin unit that made some viral video about, “We’re going to get you, Hamas.” And so, in a way, it’s driven the Israeli Arabs to be more Israeli, which is so important.

Ra’am party head MK Mansour Abbas leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, October 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/ Flash90)

We also have the phenomenon of Mansour Abbas, this new Arab party (Ra’am) that’s instead of fighting the Palestinian cause — [which is] very political and not trying to improve the role of their people, their condition — this party accepts Israel. They just want to have more equality and a better situation. That’s a very positive, important development.

Now, if there’s one sector of society that concerns me the most, it’s the extremist settler sector, and they’re outliers in any number of ways. But how would you fold them into your rubric of the genius of Israel? Are they part of this leadership training, and if so, in a positive direction?

‘The Genius of Israel’ co-author Saul Singer. (Shimon Gal)

The radical settlers who are attacking Palestinians and stuff are a horrible extremism. We have extremism in our society. Part of the problem with this government is they actually kind of have representation, in a way, in the government. That will stop, this government will fall and they will be out, and that will help things right there. But, yeah, it’s a problem we sort of have to combat that we have to deal with.

Saul obviously, books take a long time, and you’ve been working on this book for years, I would imagine. Also, books go to the publishing house way earlier and to the printer way before we see them on the shelves. This book is amazingly up-to-date, of course, because it includes the summer protest and things of that nature.

I’m sure everyone is asking you this, but were you to write this book right now, how would you be influenced by everything you’ve been seeing since October 7?

So, first of all, the book, what we describe is in a way compared to now, sort of nice to have. What we were talking about is that Israel is in a much better situation as a society compared to other modern societies because we have this more human group feeling that’s making us more satisfied with our lives.

It was kind of making us happier and more connected and all these things. But now it’s become existential — if we don’t stay unified, we’re just going to go into a downward spiral. Our number one challenge is to double down on what makes us strong, what we’re seeing right now during the war, not to lose it. That is our challenge going forward. We would write another chapter or so about that, to talk about what happened here during the war, and also how is it going forward. So this is the key thing to watch and, more than watch, to work on.

Saul Singer, thank you so much for joining me today.

Thank you. Great to be here. Amanda.

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