“Why are Israelis so damn happy?” (& confirmation that Assad used chemical weapons)

April 12, 2013

Beach party, Tel Aviv


* OECD survey again finds that Israel is one of the happiest places on the planet

* Perhaps happiness can be as simple as a day at the beach

* Syrian air strikes deliberately targeting civilians, have killed 4,300 civilians since last summer

* Western intelligence confirms Assad crossed Obama’s chemical weapons “red line”


* You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.

There will be no dispatches next week.



1. In first foreign trip since being re-elected, Netanyahu will attend Thatcher’s funeral
2. Peres to meet Pope Francis I in Rome
3. New poll finds drop in Palestinian support for Hamas rocket attacks
4. Bahrain becomes first Arab state to ban Hizbullah as a terrorist organization
5. Syrian air strikes deliberately targeting civilians, have killed 4,300 civilians since last summer
6. Western intelligence confirms Assad crossed Obama’s chemical weapons “red line”
7. Up to 600 Europeans said to be fighting against Assad regime
8. Egyptian doctors “ordered to operate on protesters without anesthetic”
9. “Why are Israelis so damn happy?” (Ha’aretz, April 3, 2013)
10. “Israelis happy, says OECD, despite low ranking on income and education” (Ha’aretz, April 2, 2013)

[Notes below by Tom Gross]


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to London next week to attend the funeral on Wednesday of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

This will be Netanyahu’s first overseas trip since his reelection, and he may meet separately with British Prime Minister David Cameron and other international leaders while in London.

Netanyahu was personally invited to the funeral by Lady Thatcher’s children. Margaret Thatcher was a strong supporter of the state of Israel and she and Netanyahu had a warm personal relationship. She sent him a personal handwritten letter of commiseration after he lost the 1999 elections, and also encouraged him to implement much needed economic reforms to the Israeli economy, which he did when he served as finance minister.



Israeli President Shimon Peres will travel to Rome to meet Pope Francis I on April 30. Peres will be among the first heads of state to meet with Francis since he was elected to head the Catholic Church last month.

Earlier this week the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Patriarch Fouad Twal, invited Pope Francis to visit the city where he said that “Jesus preached and healed”.

Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican met with Pope Francis in March and formally invited him to visit Israel. According to the Associated Press, the new pope said “shalom” to the Israeli representative and smiled, but did not immediately respond to the invitation.



A new public opinion survey of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, carried out by the Ramallah-based Media and Communications Center, found that 38.4 percent of Palestinians now supported firing rockets at Israeli civilians – down from 74% who said they supported such attacks last year.

The poll also found slightly more Palestinians now support Fatah than the rival Islamist group Hamas.

The survey was based on interviews with hundreds of Palestinians in late March and is said to have a margin of error of 3 percent.

Despite a ceasefire, Hamas continues to shoot occasional rockets into southern Israel. During President Obama’s visit last month a rocket was fired at a Sderot kindergarten, and last week another was fired at a Holocaust memorial ceremony. Residents took cover in bomb shelters in both instances and no one was injured.



The European Union is still refusing to designate Hizbullah as a terrorist organization, even though EU governments have said there is no doubt that Hizbullah was behind the terror attack in which tourists were murdered last year in the EU member state of Bulgaria, and behind another attempted terror attack on tourists in Cyprus, also an EU member. By contrast, the Arab state of Bahrain this week outlawed the Lebanon-based Hizbullah as a terrorist organization.

Bahraini MP Abdul Halim Murad told the Al Arabiya television network that there is evidence that Hizbullah is instigating terror attacks in Bahrain.

The Netherlands is the only European Union member-state that has declared Hizbullah a terrorist organization – despite decades of Hizbullah terror attacks and attempted attacks around the world.



An 80-page report, “Death from the Skies: Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Strikes on Civilians,” released by Human Rights Watch, has accused Syria for carrying out air strikes deliberately targeting civilians. 4,300 civilians have been killed in such air strikes since last summer, according to the report. These are known casualties. An additional number of unknown civilians are also been likely to have been killed.

Iranian officials are helping to coordinate many of the air strikes, but the UN Security Council has not even condemned them, due to a Chinese and Russian veto.

Last week, Syrian warplanes also carried out air strikes in neighboring Lebanon, provoking harsh condemnation from Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have fired mortars into and occasionally entered Lebanese territory in pursuit of rebels groups.



Western intelligence officials have reportedly confirmed that Syrian President Bashar Assad did, in fact, cross the red-line drawn by President Obama by using chemical weapons in mid-March.

President Obama and other senior U.S. administration officials have repeatedly warned Assad that the use of chemical weapons would be met with an American response, yet there does not appear to have been any. In 2012, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would cross a “red line” and prompt “direct action” from the United States.

“In one case, we have hard evidence,” one Western diplomat was quoted as saying this week by Agence France Press (AFP) and “there are several examples where we are quite sure that shells with chemicals have been used in a very sporadic way.”

Syria is believed to possess the world’s second largest stockpile of weaponized chemical agents, after China.

Britain and France have asked the UN to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Khan al-Assal and in Ataybah on March 19, as well as in Homs on December 23.

The March 19 attack killed 30 and injured 80 civilians.


Some of you may also wish to read this spoof piece from the satirical American magazine The Onion:

‘Syrians’ Lives Are Worthless,’ Obama Tells Daughters Before Kissing Them Goodnight.



A new report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, has found that since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, up to 5,500 foreign fighters, including as many as 600 Europeans, have joined rebel forces in the fight to topple the Assad regime in Syria.

The findings were based on research of over 450 Western and Arab sources and martyrdom notice boards on jihadi Internet forums.

The foreign fighters include at least 134 fighters from Britain, 107 from the Netherlands, 92 from France and 85 from Belgium. Other countries with fighters in Syria include Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Albania, Austria, and Bulgaria.

The phenomenon of Westerners fighting alongside radical Islamist forces in Syria was highlighted earlier this week when it was reported that Eric Harroun, a 30-year-old U.S. Army veteran, was planning to fight with al-Nusra terrorists against the Assad regime. Harroun has been charged in a court in Virginia with conspiring to use a rocket-propelled grenade while fighting with al-Nusra, which has been linked to al-Qaeda.



The British paper The Guardian reports that it has seen a leaked Egyptian presidential report that recommends an investigation into the highest ranks of the country’s army, after senior Egyptian army doctors were ordered to operate without anesthetic on wounded civilian protesters at a military hospital in Cairo during protests against military rule.

The findings relate to the army’s behavior during clashes in May 2012. The report also alleges that doctors, soldiers and medics assaulted protesters inside the hospital.


I attach two articles below.

An extensive survey by the OECD has again found that Israel is one of the happiest places on the planet.

I agree with the survey’s results, Despite some moaning and groaning by a vociferous minority, most people I speak to in Israel seem very happy – there is a good atmosphere, good food, good friendship, good family life, and plenty of beach, desert, green pastures, and sunshine.

-- Tom Gross



Why are Israelis so damn happy?
It’s thanks to both the wars and the weather, and those Friday night dinners that keep us from feeling lonely.
By Allison Kaplan Sommer
April 3, 2013

It’s happened again. An international survey has been published showing that Israelis are, compared to their counterparts in other Western countries, very happy and content people. That information confounds everyone, not least Israelis themselves.

How in the world can it be, we ask ourselves, that citizens of a tiny embattled nation, surrounded by enemies, targeted by boycotts, officially and unofficially loathed by a major portion of the world, with compulsory army service, where regularly scheduled wars and “operations” take place at least once every few years, where complaining about the “situation” is a national pastime, can feel so fine and dandy? It makes no sense.

It’s reached the point where even the stories reporting the news of these polls suggest that the Israelis taking the survey must be lying. The latest survey, as relayed in Tuesday’s report, Haaretz suggested as much, and the journalists writing the piece sounded utterly confounded:

“Israelis are among the most content people in the Western world, even though the country doesn’t measure up by many of the criteria in a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. ... It’s not clear why Israelis are so happy, despite a relatively poor showing on measures such as housing, income, job security, community support and education. It could be that what makes the average Norwegian happy doesn’t do the trick in Israel. Or maybe Israelis try to appear happy even when they’re not and respond to pollsters accordingly.”

While I understand the writer’s skepticism, I really don’t think people are lying to the pollsters. It just can’t be that the same results, survey after survey, among different organizations with different sample groups, time after time, are fraudulent. Nobody can lie that consistently. I think we are just going to have to make peace with the crazy fact that for the most part, Israelis are comparatively happy campers. We just have to figure out why.

A few years ago, I discussed the topic with the leading world expert on happiness, Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, who famously taught the most popular course at Harvard on positive psychology, earning the nickname “Professor Happiness” and who, despite his tremendous success in the United States, moved back to Israel with his family because he was, well, happier living here.

His explanations for the Israeli happiness factor are helpful in understanding the situation. Ben Shahar believes that the top predictor of happiness is spending time with people we care about and who care about us. With Israel being so geographically small, there is little that stands between Israelis and their close friends and family. Friday night dinners with extended family are a matter of course, even for the young and hip. And in the typical Israeli community, there are a lot of people who care about us - if anything, who care too much. Friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, the guy who runs the corner store, often feel too close, too “in our face,” and we often wish everyone would butt out of our business, but, apparently, it’s a good thing in the long run; human connection is human connection, even when it’s extremely annoying. At least this contact prevents utter isolation, which seems to be a leading cause of unhappiness.

Another Shahar-ism is that “happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.” Even when Israelis run low on pleasure, they are never, ever short of meaning. We overdose on meaning. The national narrative means that simply living in the state of Israel and making it through any given day is meaningful. Certainly, those who believe they are helping to realize the Zionist dream believe their lives here, even the most humdrum, hold great meaning. Even more so for those who are religious and believe that their existence here is part of an active larger plan. And even on the hardest of the hard left, those who live in Israel and have not left in disgust for London, Berlin, or New York, and remain here to fight against injustice and for a better, more humane state, may feel frustrated in many ways, but still, in their fight there is certainly meaning.

Beyond Ben Shahar’s theories, there is also what I call the ‘goat’ factor. I base it on the old Jewish tale of a man upset with his family’s crowded and miserable living conditions who asks a rabbi what to do, and is told to move a goat into his home for a week. At the end of the week, he was told to sell the goat. Suddenly, he told his rabbi, his home felt so big, so clean, so spacious! He was thrilled - and happy.

We’ve got a lot of goats around here in this country: wars, missiles, terror, strife and life-and-death crisis on a regular basis. Stressful as it is, the strife also offers perspective and the ability not to “sweat the small stuff” that we face in life, and increases appreciation for a normal, boring life. Israelis don’t wish each other a fun, exciting, thrilling weekend as they leave at the end of a work week; they wish each other a “quiet” weekend. Quiet is enough to keep us satisfied.

For even more perspective, we only have to look at our neighbors. Let’s face it: everyone looks at the house next door to size up their own situation. Things may be far from perfect here, but with what’s going on in Syria and Egypt right now, things feel safe and stable in Israel. Logically, of course, having neighbors in turmoil should make us more worried - and it does. But it also makes us feel lucky.

Finally, I may be writing this too close to a two-week stay in a bitterly cold overcast European city, but there’s something about beautiful weather that can keep one’s spirits up. Looking at the OECD survey, Israelis can only envy the folks in Norway and Sweden their cushy economic situation and rich package of social benefits from the state. However, day after frosty, gray, chilly day, financial security doesn’t necessarily keep your soul warm.

So, even when the national news might be scary and depressing, we might be barely covering the mortgage or the rent, and have no idea what we will do in our retirement, a morning lingering over coffee in a sunshine-splashed café, preferably with good friends, can certainly cheer you up. I know this sounds superficial, but I do have evidence: note that the six OECD countries with the lowest suicide rates - Spain, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Turkey and Greece all happen to include regions with consistently beautiful weather and gorgeous coastlines.

Perhaps happiness can be as simple as a day at the beach.



Israelis happy, says OECD, despite low ranking on income and education
A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds that Israelis are among the most content people in the Western world, even though the country doesn’t measure up to many other criteria.
By Hila Weissberg, Nimrod Bousso and Ronny Linder-Ganz
April 2, 2013

Israelis are among the most content people in the Western world, even though the country doesn’t measure up by many of the criteria in a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Over the past year, the OECD examined quality of life among its 34 member countries, which includes Israel, and two nonmembers, Brazil and Russia. Its Better Life Index is based on 11 criteria: housing, income, labor market, community, civil engagement, education, health, environment, personal safety, balance between work and leisure, and an overall life satisfaction index.

Despite not ranking high among OECD countries on many criteria, Israelis scored particularly well by two measures − health, where Israel came in fifth out of the 36 countries, and happiness, where it came in eighth.

The study has an innovative approach. “Which country is number 1?” the OECD website asks. “That’s up to you! The OECD has not assigned rankings to countries.” If the respondent thinks housing is more important than the environment, for example, the site weighs that accordingly.

The study’s approach reflects an outlook among economists in recent years that measures like gross domestic product and unemployment don’t necessarily gauge quality of life. In any case, if the OECD ascribed equal importance to each parameter, Israel would not do well in the study. On a scale with 10 as the maximum, Israel would average about 5.4 and rank about 25 out of 36.

It’s not clear why Israelis are so happy, despite a relatively poor showing on measures such as housing, income, job security, community support and education. It could be that what makes the average Norwegian happy doesn’t do the trick in Israel. Or maybe Israelis try to appear happy even when they’re not and respond to pollsters accordingly.

The following is a sample of the findings.


The OECD’s measure for gauging housing quality mixed criteria including the average number of rooms per person, the percentage of disposable household income going to housing, and access to basic infrastructure such as running water. The data, from 2010, put Israel in 28th place among the 36 countries.

The highest score went to the United States, followed by Canada and Ireland, while Turkey came in last place, with Estonia and Hungary just above it. The average Israeli has 1.2 rooms to himself compared with an OECD average of 1.6. Canadians are best off with 2.5 rooms per person.

Despite Israelis’ dissatisfaction with housing costs, as reflected in the 2011 social protest, Israel was in the middle of the pack regarding the percentage of household spending devoted to housing. Israel placed 20th with an average of 22% of net disposable income going to housing, precisely the OECD average.
The lowest average here was Russia at 11%; the highest was New Zealand at 29%.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics says Israelis on average spent 28% of their net income on housing rather than the OECD’s 22%. In any case, an informal survey revealed that 83% of Israelis are satisfied with their housing, compared with an OECD average of 87%.


Israel ranks 22nd when it comes to disposable income‏((about NIS 6,000 a month on average). On top here is the United States, followed by Luxembourg, Norway and France.

On the other hand, Israel ranks higher − in 10th place − as measured by household financial wealth at $47,750, based on 2009 data. This is higher than the OECD average of $36,238, and measures total financial worth, meaning the value of assets minus liabilities.


Israel ranks high on all measures related to health. The most important is life expectancy, which averages 82 for Israeli men, almost two years more than the OECD average. Israeli women on average live to 84. Ironically, Israeli spending on health care is just 7.9% of gross national product, compared with 9.7% in the OECD. And 81% of Israelis say they’re healthy, compared with 70% in the OECD. By this measure, Israel ranks 7th.


Israelis scored 8.5 out of 10 on the happiness index, despite an average or poor showing in many measures. This isn’t the first time Israelis have ranked high on well-being. A similar UN survey released about a year ago ranked Israel highly. In both surveys, the Nordic countries scored well, while nations with higher rates of economic inequality, such as the United States and Britain, scored more poorly.

An obvious explanation would be that in countries with greater equality and solidarity, people feel less social injustice and discrimination. But in Israel, this explanation isn’t convincing because economic inequalities are relatively high. Again, Israelis may try to appear happy when questioned by pollsters. Another explanation is that the sample may not have been representative.

Itzhak Harpaz of the University of Haifa’s Center for the Study of Organizations and Resource Management added: “Life expectancy in Israel is high, health is good, and we’re proud of the country’s accomplishments in science and high-tech. All of these affect how Israelis view their lives.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.