Tal Ben Shahar's class in positive psychology was one of the most popular in the history of Harvard University. Yet despite his pedagogical success, four best-selling books, a consulting practice with Fortune 500 companies and sundry television appearances, he decided it was time to move home ... to Israel. How he reached this decision and its implications are beautifully presented in an unusual film entitled "Israel Inside: How a Small Nation Makes a Big Difference."
For me, there are two striking elements about this recent documentary. The first is the total absence of exploration of the supposedly unceasing and (often hyperbolized) strife that the word at large has come to associate with the modern Jewish State. The second is the clear presentation of an unarguable dedication to and successful implementation of the Jewish notion of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) that urgently bubbles throughout that tiny land mass in the most insistent, daring and intrinsic manner.
For instance, when the tragic earthquake of 2010 devastated Haiti, Israel, with its unfortunate but useful familiarity with public scenes of mayhem, was one of the first responders. Within days, Israeli doctors and army personal had set up a state-of-the-art field hospital and saved many lives. A pregnant woman named Jeanne-Michelle was so thankful to them for delivering her baby that she named the child Israel. The doctors interviewed saw this as an obligation, an obvious and necessary component of their national identity. This type of Israeli benevolence is as common as it is unrecognized. And it's not just with Israel's friends. Despite its status as mortal enemy No. 1, Israel offered similar assistance to the Islamic Republic of Iran after their devastating earthquake at Bam in 2003. Iran declined, preferring the death of its own citizens to the acceptance of help from the "Little Satan."
Simcha Blass, a Polish immigrant to Israel, along with his son Yeshayahu, was a water engineer and a pioneer of the drip irrigation system -- an invention that has literally allowed the desert to bloom by producing greater crop yield while using less water. Note Mark Twain's description of the Israeli flora from his trip there in 1867: "A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds ... a silent, mournful expanse ... a desolation ... We never saw a human being on the whole route ... Hardly a tree or shrub anywhere."
Things have changed. Israel is now an exporter of high quality produce all over the world (when not being needlessly boycotted) and has shared their water technology with many other countries with harsh climates such as Niger, South Africa and Senegal. These Israeli engineers take great pride in their assistance and the local populations are extremely grateful. Those beneficiaries don't discuss perceived sieges and occupations as they are willing to recognize the true nature of the people helping them -- congenial, habitual givers who are infused with the intuitive desire to make the world better.
Perhaps that it why Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agasi named his electric car company "Better Place." He and his team are not just making the cars, but are creating a nation-wide system to fulfill his "vision of zero-emission vehicles powered by electricity from renewable sources -- a reality in countries around the globe." Perhaps Better Place will be the company that finally breaks the back of our fossil-fuel dependence and does more to green this planet than any other. In 2008 Israel became the first country to commit to the model and since then Denmark, Australia, California, Hawaii and Ontario have followed suit.
Why do we read more about check points than this revolutionary green technology? Why does a perverse Turkish flotilla attract so much more media attention than all of the cutting edge medical, agricultural and environmental innovation? Why is every defensive, counter-terror operation pathologically obsessed over while organizations such as Aleh, Yad Sarah and Magen David Adom passionately excel in caring, nurturing, assisting, providing and supporting the most challenged, needy, hurt and down-trodden members of Israeli society in ways that the whole world could learn from?
One is tempted to surmise that there are many people whose hatred of the Jews (not just Israel) and what we stand for simply overrides their ability to connect with the many values that they themselves hold and strangely causes them to identify with the enemies of the Jews -- whose values they would normally disagree with. In favor of women's rights? Where are you more likely to find them, in Tel Aviv or Gaza City? Think Democracy is a favorable political system? Where is it more alive, Jerusalem or Cairo? And amazingly, despite the ability of Muslims, Christians and others to hold office, vote and avail themselves of all of the rights and privileges of the government, Israel is called an "apartheid state" while actual apartheid states like Saudi Arabia -- a place which I am unable to travel because I'm a Jew and allows no non-Muslims to visit Mecca -- receives little opprobrium.
Inevitably, there will be those who will take the position that no amount of benevolence can make up for their perceived persecution of the Palestinians and Israel's supposed use of disproportionate force in conflicts. It is a difficult thing to be misunderstood -- to strive to do good only to be rebuffed and maligned for the attempts. It's an odd claim, but the truth is that the Palestinians have no greater friend than Israel, which has happily built roads, schools, hospitals and industrial zones for them while always believing that both peace and prosperity were indeed possible. What other nation in the history of time has ever voluntarily entered into negotiations to give back land won in defensive wars and offered to split its ancient and historical capital in half?
And as for warfare, Israel routinely incurs heightened risk to its own soldiers to minimize civilian casualties. As British Colonel Richard Kemp testified after the '08 war in Gaza: "During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare. Israel did so while facing an enemy that deliberately positioned its military capability behind the human shield of the civilian population."
There are many sources in Jewish canonical literature that demand moral excellence; "Justice, justice shall you pursue," "Do not take revenge, do not bear a grudge, love your fellow as yourself," "Remember the stranger, the orphan and the widow ... you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt." These teachings have been etched into the collective consciousness of the Jewish nation and reverberate in our behavior to this day. We have many flaws as well, but the modern state of Israel should hold its head high. Despite its craven detractors, it remains on mission as "a light unto the nations."