Pic: Yaki Assaig
'Majority of Israelis prefer to live in Israel'
Photo: Gili Sofer

Better than we thought

There are many options open to you average Israeli. The fact that most of us choose to live here says a lot about this country

Here’s a trivia question: What is the second largest Greek city in the world?


Don’t run to the atlas. The second largest Greek city in the world is Melbourne, Australia. Only Athens has a larger Greek population. The reason that so many Greeks migrated to Australia is because they were unhappy in Greece and looked for a different place to call "home."


The second largest Israeli city is Tel Aviv; followed by Haifa, Beer Sheva, Holon, etc. New York would be somewhere on the list, but pretty far down. In the final analysis, the majority of Israelis prefer to live in Israel.


It’s not that there are no alternatives. The average Israeli speaks better English than most Greeks. He has more years of schooling, uses the Internet more often and frequently flies abroad (Everybody knows we hold all the worlds' records for international travel.) and has at his disposal – one way or another – a fabulous network of Jewish communities. There is a synagogue in every major city; a Jewish community center, a B’nai Brith chapter or at the very least, Chabad. If they arrive with the children and a container, chances are there'll be someone there to meet them at the airport.


But most of us don’t leave and that’s not something to sniff at. In the not-so-roaring eighties it seemed that our numbers were shrinking. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin slammed Israelis who left the country as "wusses" and it did not come out of a vacuum.


Ultimate test


In 1987, when I worked in Los Angeles as a reporter, I was sent on assignment to a small street in the San Fernando Valley. Half of the residents of the street were from Kibbutz Beit Alfa. There was a neat row of houses, backyard swimming pool included, a nice home renovations business, three cars in the driveway. It seemed like they were waiting for the rest of the kibbutz to take up residence on the other half of the street. It did not happen.


Twenty years later, you can go to and reserve a charming cabin at the foot of the Gilboa Mountains, air conditioning and breakfast included. It’s supposed to be charming.


As Israel begins its 59th year of independence the country passes the ultimate test of any nation, with flying colors: Israelis love to complain but wouldn’t live anywhere else. They make due with the high taxes, the security problems, the widening social gap, and the country's embarrassing body politic. They are even willing to gamble on the country: Close to 75 percent of the apartments in Israel are owned by the people who live in them. This is a higher percentage than in England, Canada, the US, Japan, Germany and Holland. The big question is why? What is this country giving them that does not show up in the statistics?


There are several standard answers: the Holocaust is one, fear of anti-Semitism, a Jewish identity, Friday afternoon reading the newspaper and eating sunflower seeds. Each of these answers is correct but none of them is enough. I have another explanation:


Perceptive economics


The Hebrew translation of the best-selling book "Freakonomics" by Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner came out this month. It’s one of the most perceptive studies of economics I have ever encountered. It talks about – amongst other things - something that was tried here in Israel: A Haifa child-care center was having trouble with parents arriving on time to pick up their children. To combat the phenomenon, management imposed a 10 shekel (two dollars) fine on parents who were late in picking up their kids.


After several months of this policy a clear trend became evident. What do you think happened?


The number of late parents tripled.


How do you explain it? Before the policy was introduced, parents were embarrassed to arrive late to pick up their children. Everyone is familiar with the feeling - you are stuck in traffic, sweating, imagining your child is the last one left behind, crying, feeling abandoned. You are the worst parent in the world.


As soon as there was a tax for lateness, parents did the math. Better to leave in the middle of a meeting where your promotion is being discussed or pay the ten shekels? The answer is clear.


Levitt’s example (Dubner just helped with the writing) proves, and not for the first time, that people will do a little more in order to feel they are good people. Other incentives – money, promotion, comfort – are less powerful.


Needing people


In recent years, I have had the opportunity to take part in a number of televised charity drives benefiting various causes – children at risk, education, meals for the needy – but the campaign strategy was always the same: people sitting at home are asked to pick up the phone and make a donation.


Socially, they have no incentive to give: their names aren’t mentioned, no one outside of the members of their families knew they were making a contribution. There was no immediate gratification or glory. And despite this, each charity drive raised more money than the organizers anticipated.


This is because people know how to appreciate the fact they are needed. It doesn’t always need to be as dramatic as Churchill’s “I have nothing to give you but blood, sweat and tears” or Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”


Earning vitality


But we have lived in this country for 58 years. We know it. We love it. We are ready to do almost anything for it.


The prime minister is wasting his time and ours when he promises us that in another four years this will be a wonderful place to live. We have chosen this place. We have chosen 30 days (at least) of IDF reserve duty a year, income tax, religious - secular tensions, the Palestinian threat. We have chosen and we continue to choose every day. This makes us better people because we matter and that allows us to feel that between our birth and our death, something vital and real is happening to us.


There aren’t many countries that give their citizens that kind of feeling.


This year, Israel’s Independence Day coincided with the forming of a new government. A lot of empty promises were scattered along the way. Empty and unnecessary. If instead of those promises, someone tells us what he wants us to do as a nation, then we will do the best that we can.


פרסום ראשון: 05.10.06, 19:33
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