Israeli state of mind

August 23, 2004

HERE'S AN ITEM from the Book of Counterintuitive Facts: Israelis are happy.

Despite their ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, the deaths of hundreds of countrymen from suicide bombers, and a sagging economy, eight out of 10 Israelis say they are content with their lives. That's the word from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics' annual social poll, the results of which were released earlier this month.

Although the percentage of happy Israelis declines the older they get, they still represent a majority of their age group, whether they're 20 or 80.

This in a country that has been locked in a low-level ground war with Palestinian militants for nearly four years, where military service is compulsory for its youth and religious issues prove contentious for its overwhelmingly secular society.

In Israel, the news of the day often reflects the country's feeling of isolation in the region and the world: Iran declares its right to preemptively strike Israel. An international court ruling on the country's security fence may lead to U.N. sanctions. Anti-semitic graffiti is found on grounds of a Paris cathedral. Compound that with the threat level Israelis feel at home, who would be happy?

But Israelis wrestle with their fears and do so vigorously. Their collective conversation is rarely hushed and is customarily impassioned. They long ago subscribed to the belief that if they stopped living life, the terrorists would win. Restaurants, cafes and malls may have armed guards posted at their doors, but they don't keep patrons from the premises. "Tel Aviv is one big party," says a Jerusalem lawyer who socializes in both Israel's religious and secular capitals. The social life in Jerusalem may be less exuberant, but it's no less active in recent months, others say.

The poll's findings coincide with a reduction in terror attacks across Israel. That fact gives rise to the feeling among Israelis that the government is winning its war of attrition against the Palestinians. Israel maintains it military cordon around Palestinian cities and pursues its construction of a security barrier along the West Bank divide.

The American view of Israel is often skewed toward the conflict it faces with the Palestinians and its political repercussions.

And yet the factors that contribute to the happiness of Israelis are not unlike what we might expect here, where terror warnings appear to be more a function of political manipulation than realistic threat. They include degree of education, marital status and income level, which means a college-educated engineer who is married would be one happy dude.

Israelis may feel satisfied, but what about their future? With no political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the offing, unemployment at 7.7 percent and the religious-secular divide widening? When asked, 52 percent of Israelis polled said they expect their lives to improve in the future.

Happy and hopeful -- for now.

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