November 26, 2006

As a small country in a very hostile neighborhood, Israel has to use its resiliency muscles often.Our daughter, a physician, once worked as an intern in pediatric emergency medicine. She told us how amazed she was at children’s recuperative powers and how well they bounced back from illnesses that would vanquish adults.

I thought of Sophie, arguably Africa’s most famous child. Sophie was born in Mozambique – in a treetop. Her desperate heavily-pregnant mother climbed into the tree during disastrous 2001 floods and gave birth in its branches. She was rescued and she and Sophie survived. Sophie is now 5, beautiful and healthy. Sophie and her mother were resilient.

Family therapists define family resiliency as “the capacity to cultivate strengths to positively meet the challenges of life.” Countries too have resiliency. In our current global turmoil, resiliency is becoming a key element in nations’ wellbeing, when unexpected crises toss them around like matchsticks in a tornado.

Israel has resiliency in spades. What other country had one per cent of its population killed in the War of Independence, absorbed a million immigrants in four years, fought fedayeen terrorists, went to war in 1956 and 1967, survived a surprise attack in 1973, suffered recession and 1,000 per cent inflation in 1983-4 following by a stock market crash, shed its blood in the Lebanese quagmire, endured two intifadas, suicide bombers, a wrenching Gaza withdrawal… and lost two serving prime ministers – the late Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon – one to assassination, the other to a stroke.

Yet every time, Israel has bounced back from adversity that might have sunk other countries. What is Israel’s bounce-back secret?

Chicago physician Dr. Carl Bell has the answer. Individuals develop resiliency, he claims, the same way they develop muscular strength – constant exercise. “Use it or lose it,” he says.

As a small country in a very hostile neighborhood, Israel has to use its resiliency muscles often – perhaps all too often. I wonder if Granny Europe or complacent America might not find their resiliency muscles flabby when faced with crisis. Failure to meet the Hurricane Katrina challenge is evidence.

Experts note that resilient individuals who emerge from very poor neighborhoods and achieve high success have several common characteristics – intelligence, strong problem-solving skills, ability to improvise, a sense of humor. Israelis have these.

In the past, Israel had another key advantage. To paraphrase Senator Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to survive a crisis. Israel was once a village pretending to be a country. There was equality, cohesion and mutual responsibility. In the age of capitalism, this cohesion has sharply declined.

A recent study proved what is now known as “six degrees of separation” –

“anyone on earth can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries.”

Israel, I suspect, has only two or three degrees of separation (America has five). Everyone here still knows everyone else – but perhaps, cares less.

As Aharon Bentur, Technion Dean of Civil and Environmental Engineering, notes, national resilience results as much from social cohesion as it does from military and economic strength. Preserving social cohesion in the face of rising economic inequality is one of Israel’s greatest challenges.

While on sabbatical leave in Canada, we once had a Scottish grandmother look after our intrepid year-old toddler. When he fell and skinned his knee, she comforted him, and told us, “Ay, no fear, ye’ know the Lord made the wee’uns so they bounce.”

Perhaps Israel, too, was made to bounce. Of all Israel’s qualities, this is the one that will lead Israelis to endure and ultimately prevail in a world and Mideast whose climate, markets and politics constantly conspire to brew major crises.

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Report)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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