Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The happiest people in the world

I originally published this piece in the National Post, Tuesday, Aug 17, 2010.

Canada and Israel have much in common. We're both big believers in democracy and in fairness, we're both highly diverse multicultural societies and both of us have dynamic economies.

But I was tickled to learn this summer that Canada and Israel have yet one more thing in common: We're tied for eighth place among the happiest people on Earth.

Some people might be surprised to find Israelis at the top of the happiness charts. After all, Gallup conducted this poll from 2005 to 2009, and during that time, Israel fought two wars.

On top of that, Israel is often protrayed as a monstrous, apartheid state. Surely Israeli Arabs must live in utter misery -- and since they make up 20% of the population, their despair ought to pop the happiness bubble, right? Apparently not. It seems Israeli Arabs are pretty happy, too.

Arab-Israeli soccer star Beram Kayal has an easy explanation for misconceptions about Israel. "People watch too much television," he recently told Scotland's Sunday Herald.

"What the television shows about Israel is totally different [from] what happens. The life between the Jews and the Arabs is very good. I'm an Arab and my agent is Jewish but we're like family ... Maccabi Haifa has seven or eight Arab players and that's normal. The only difference is their religion, but there's no conflict."

But what about all those wars in Israel? Shouldn't they make Israelis miserable? Not really.

The 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon lasted just 34 days. The operation in Gaza against Hamas, in 2008-2009, lasted just 22 days. In total, that's only eight weeks of war.

For the other 252 weeks in the last five years, Israelis spent their time pretty much like Canadians: working, raising their families and enjoying themselves. That's normal life in Israel, but what's normal isn't news, so we don't hear about it.

Besides, being at war doesn't necessarily make people unhappy. During the first hours of the Lebanese War, Israel destroyed all of Hezbollah's long-range missiles, making Israel's major cities safe for the duration.

Hezbollah did fire thousands of missiles into northern Israel, trying to kill as many Jews as possible. But Hezbollah's missiles caused few injuries, as a million Israelis simply

evacuated to the south, and those who stayed waited out the bombardment in bomb shelters.

Meanwhile, the country was absolutely behind the war. Overseas, people may have been confused over what the war was about, but Israelis all knew they'd been attacked without provocation, with missiles striking Israeli towns and an ambush on an Israeli patrol that left three soldiers dead and two more kidnapped.

Standing together in the face of aggression doesn't make people miserable; quite the contrary. It puts fire in the belly and the warmth of fellow feeling in the heart.

Similarly, while people overseas may have been confused by the media coverage, Israelis know that their operation against Hamas in Gaza was one of the most justified wars in history -- that it was an answer to naked terrorism after all other solutions had been tried and failed.

For years, Hamas had tormented the townsfolk of Sderot with daily rocket and mortar attacks that struck schools, homes and health clinics. The purpose of the war was to allow Sderot and other Israeli towns coming under terrorist attack to enjoy the same peace and happiness as the rest of Israel. And whole country supported the cause.

Israel isn't paradise of course -- except in comparison to most places in the world. For example, the Palestinian-controlled territories rank 96th on the happiness list. Which brings me to a modest proposal: Among other intractable issues, the status of Jerusalem is one of the major stumbling blocks to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Why not hold a referendum? Ask Jerusalem's Arabs if they want the continuing happiness of being part of a compassionate and caring liberal democracy or if they prefer the abject misery of living under the infinitely corrupt Palestinian Authority.

No one can seriously doubt the result of such a referendum. During the Camp David talks, it was proposed that, as part of a peace agreement, some Israeli Arab towns should be placed on the Palestinian side of the border.

So the Israeli Arab weekly Kul Al-Arab polled the Arabs of Um al Fahm to ask what they thought of their city joining a Palestinian State. Only 11% were in favour; 83% said they preferred to remain Israeli.

A referendum among Arab Jerusalemites would have a similarly lopsided result. And allowing Jerusalem's Arabs to tie themselves permanently to Israel of their own free choice would be an excellent way to begin a new stage in the relationship.

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