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  • Ofer Setty

Year Abroad Reflections: Insights into Israel's Social Dynamics

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Note: this post was submitted to Ha'aretz just before the October 7 war but never got published there.

After a year of enjoying the charm of Copenhagen, it's time to explore the social and economic contrasts between Israel and Denmark. Yes, there’s a difference in GDP between Israel and Denmark and no, it doesn’t matter much in my opinion. Why? Because economic growth will narrow the gap over time. In a few years, the average Israeli will have what the average Dane already has today. And although it’s true that, in the meantime, Denmark will progress past the point it’s at today, and it’s true that Israel’s rate of progress will likely be slower due to the regime coup going on, I don’t believe that economics is the main story here. And so, on to the social aspects.


In Denmark, the general demeanor is more pleasant, and there are numerous indicators in support of this. For instance, Denmark ranks first as the least corrupt country in the world, whereas Israel ranks thirty-first. When I first arrived here, I felt liberated from the oppression of the daily conduct in Israel. I still feel this way, but in recent months, I’ve been thinking not only about differences between the countries but also about the reasons for those differences.


In the past, I’ve written about inequality which – in my opinion – is one of the most deeply-rooted causes for the circumstances in Israel. Other countries with high levels of inequality that are also facing socio-political turmoil include Great Britain and the United States. It will be interesting (and likely upsetting) to follow the course of events in these countries. Of course, establishing a clear causal link between inequality and the political situation, beyond the anecdotal link that I’m asserting, will be more difficult.


Another distinction between the two countries is the history of violence. In Israel, we learn about world history by studying the World Wars, and we learn about Israel through the history of adversity that the Jewish people have faced and through Israel’s various military operations.  On the other hand, the Danes aren’t major players when it comes to violence in modern history. During World War I, Denmark was neutral. During World War II, although it was occupied by the Nazis, the number of victims was relatively small and most Danish Jews were smuggled into Sweden. The importance of this difference in violence across the two countries cannot be overstated. Israel experienced, experiences, and inflicts violence in an insufferable manner, and the consequences of all this violence accompany its people in almost every aspect of life.


Let’s move on to the weather. While Europe is being plagued by dangerous heat waves and Israel’s summer heat is unbearable as per usual, the weather in Scandinavia is currently quite pleasant. When a heat wave does arrive, the temperature rises from, say, twenty degrees to twenty-seven degrees Celsius for a few days and everyone is overjoyed and heads straight to the beach. True, the winter here is cold and dark, but the effects of cold weather are different than those of hot weather. Cold weather causes people to want to stay home and be less active than usual. Although heat may also lead people to want to stay inside in the air conditioning, it also makes people more tense. Weather is not only unpleasant but it also has several adverse consequences. Take cycling for example. I can understand how the pleasant experience of cycling in the cool Denmark summer climate becomes a terrible one in the sweltering Israeli summer. It’s no surprise that electric bikes become that much more appealing (imagine cycling in 35-degree heat!). But the downside is a chaotic, stressful experience of navigating around pedestrians and cars (and vice versa).


The third and final reason for the socio-economic differences between the countries that I want to note is the overcrowding. Israel is more than three times as densely populated compared to Denmark. This figure is actually an underestimation, mainly because it takes into account the whole area of the Negev Desert in Israel, but not only. For example, 59% of land in Denmark is suitable for agriculture whereas that figure is only 14% in Israel. Anecdotally, in Israel, when I’m cycling from one place to another and need to make a turn, there are easily twenty other people whose way I’m in (or vice versa). Here, purely out of habit, do I start to tense up and prepare myself for the congestion, but then I look around and see that the road is clear. This is a trivial example of course, but together with others, the result is a more pleasant and peaceful atmosphere.


It's easy to judge Israelis and their behavior. Compared to Europeans, we’re more tense, impatient, and generally more self-focused as we go about our day. An Israeli standing in line is on edge about the possibility that someone will try to cut in front of him. The Dane, on the other hand, is patiently waiting his turn, and at most, is worried that he’s mistakenly cut ahead of someone else. But when I think about the physical and mental circumstances that Israelis need to contend with, and particularly the history of violence, I can understand some of the reasons underlying this type of conduct.


What to do about it is another question altogether. Progressive policy measures such as the ones I’ve written about before can be a good starting point for building a just and peaceful society. But what else? I’d say the weather isn’t susceptible to human intervention, but it appears it is — although not quite in the direction that would serve Israel and other warm climate countries. Population density can also be regarded as the result of collective action, and many populations have undergone phases of massive growth. Not just in China and India, but also France, Germany and the United States – all at different times and all for different reasons. But it’s true that Israel is exceptional due to the unfortunate combination of density and crowding.


We’re left with the violence issue. For many years, Israel was the battered child of the world. Battered, beaten up, intensely mistreated. Truly heartbreaking. The question is, what does the battered child do when he grows up? First, he shows everyone that he won’t allow anyone to abuse him any longer. I don’t know how many Israeli military operations need to happen to prove this point once and for all. What is clear though is that the battered child must decide what kind of adult he wants to be. Even if we were to put aside the violence between Israel and the Palestinians, the internal violence in Israel is both the cause and consequence of an endless and futile cycle. And yet, of all the adversities I’ve described, refraining from violence is perhaps the only thing we have any real control over. And perhaps, similar to overcrowding and impending climate changes, we no longer have control over this either.

Photo credit: Massimo Virgilio, Unsplash.



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