On October 6, Israel was a divided nation. Massive anti-government demonstrations rocked the country for months. Hundreds of reservists were refusing to serve. Families and friendships were beginning to fray due to differing beliefs. Our social fabric seemed to be unraveling.
On October 7, all that changed. That night, the moment shabbat ended, we jumped in our cars and started shuttling soldiers to their bases, retrieving them from their homes, bus stops, and pickup points.
Hundreds of thousands of reservists have been called back into active military duty. Some 150,000 people have been evacuated by government order from the southern and northern borders. The number of voluntary displacements—people who have chosen to leave cities under daily rocket threat but not immediately near the border—is also significant. Apartments stand empty. Abandoned cars line highway shoulders. Many small businesses have been shuttered. In the last few weeks, some 50,000 Israelis have lost their jobs or been put on unpaid leave due to the impact of the war.
The Israeli public has little faith in the government, whose job it is to protect its citizens. Given the rifts in Israeli society, one might expect to see signs of social breakdown: looting, break-ins, violence in the street. But none of that has happened.
Instead, millions of Israelis are packing sandwiches, delivering equipment, raising money, giving rides, opening ad hoc schools for evacuees, clearing rocket shelters, harvesting tomatoes, and more, all on a grassroots, volunteer, community basis. None of this is organized by the state. This is the work of individual citizens. Young and old, ultra-Orthodox and secular, Ashkenazi professional elites and the historically disenfranchised Mizrahim, Arabs and Jews—everyone is doing something.
A recent study released by The Institute for the Study of Civil Society and Philanthropy at Hebrew University shows that within two weeks, almost 50 percent of Israeli citizens had volunteered in one way or another. That number includes a 29 percent volunteer rate among Arab citizens.
The Israeli response is reminiscent of America’s civilian response during the world wars. Initiatives such as scrap drives and victory gardens helped the war effort. Yet America has changed. During the BLM protests, at least thirty states deployed over 43,000 National Guard troops in early June to maintain law and order. Over two hundred cities needed to impose curfews, and some 14,000 arrests were made. The vandalism, looting, and arson that took place over two weeks resulted in at least one billion dollars in damages.
How is it that Israel hasn’t descend into similar chaos? In their new book The Genius of Israel, Dan Senor and Saul Singer provide an answer: Despite Israel’s security threats, economic challenges, and internal disputes, Israelis are generally happier, healthier, and more satisfied with life than citizens of other OECD countries. Young people have more opportunities to adopt leadership positions early on and are more likely to get married; most live in tightly interconnected, multigenerational communities. There is a shared sense of national history and purpose. The Genius of Israel was written before October 7, but the authors’ observations still stand.
Many years ago, I made a radical decision. I resigned my cushy, tenured position as a university professor in Canada and moved our young family to Israel. People were shocked. After all, we owned a house, had a comfortable Jewish community, and I got to teach and write books for a living with job security and an excellent salary.
Some days, Israel is like Denmark. Other days, it feels more like Nigeria. The buses can drive right past you at the stop, if they come at all; banks and public services are closed at weird hours on random days of the week; people drive erratically. There’s not much in the way of boundaries or privacy. (I was still carrying around some post-baby weight when a woman I barely knew congratulated me on being pregnant and then, after being corrected, had no hesitation in asking me why I wasn’t pregnant again yet.)
I certainly never expected to raise my children in an active war zone. And yet I believe we live more meaningful lives here than we could in North America. The ease of 24-hour drive-thru society and the comfort of higher wages and cheaper consumer goods are never going to be enough to stave off the West’s existential malaise.
My older children are different from their North American cousins. My twenty-year-old daughter is about to give birth to our first grandchild, after volunteering in a hospital for a year. My not-Orthodox-by-choice daughter and her boyfriend spend much of their precious few shabbats home from the army together with their families—grandparents included—without giving it a second thought. My twenty-three-year-old son plans to marry his sweetheart within the year, even before beginning undergraduate study, which only comes after yeshiva study and combat service. Israeli kids grow up with a sense of belonging, an awareness of obligation. They are the ones protecting our communities and policing our borders. They are shaping the national discourse and raising up the next generation. They know that they are needed, that their lives and choices matter, and that they are not alone.
A fifth-century Jewish commentary on the book of Leviticus offers a simple but evocative story attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. It illustrates the relationship between individual sin and the people of Israel: “A man in a boat began to drill a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. ‘What concern is it of yours?’ he responded. ‘I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.’ They replied: ‘That is so, but when the water comes in it will sink the whole boat and we will all drown.’”
In Israel we know that true power resides not in the individual, nor in the government, but somewhere in-between. It resides in families, communities, neighborhoods. These are the spaces that allow us to live authentically and individually, but not alone. To be active and constructive in the face of danger. And to freely disagree and criticize without sinking the boat we are all in together.
Faydra Shapiro is a senior fellow at The Philos Project and directs the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.