As the results of a new survey on well-being—the OECD's "Better Life Index"—were published this week, Israel, as it sadly does too often these days, ranked relatively low. In the overall calculation of the index's 11 parameters, it landed 25th out of 36 states. In the category of happiness, however, Israel preformed very well, reaching the respectable 8th place. This reported contentment is hardly a surprise: the index's results comport with similar recent polls. In the 2012 Happy Planet Index, for instance, Israel ranked 15th out of 151 states, scoring higher than any other OECD country and impressively improving its previous marks: 67th in 2009's index and 127th in 2006's. In 2011—the year in which hundreds of thousands of distressed Israelis flooded the streets in an unprecedented wave of social protest—Israel ranked 7th in Gallup's "Happiness index," expressing an outstanding level of national content.
The discrepancy between the deterioration of living conditions which Israelis experience and the self-content exhibited in the polls isn't confined to international studies. The Israel Democracy Institute's 2012 Democracy Index found that despite a growing distrust for the nation's leadership (59 percent felt that the government did not handle the country's challenges well) and a bleak sense of personal and civic helplessness (over 60 percent felt that their ability to influence government policy is minimal or non-existent), close to 80 percent of the respondents did not see Israel's overall situation as bad. The most salient poll of all—January's general elections—reflected no different tendencies. Israelis were content enough to vote for a more-of-the-same type of leadership. Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid indeed spoke of New Politics, but by no means offered anything nearing a fresh agenda.
There are many potential explanations for such a resounding cognitive gap, ranging from pointing out the distinctive ways in which different cultures measure happiness, to noting the Israeli tendency to project patriotism and self-assurance as a preventive measure against potential defamers who may use reported Israeli discontent to badmouth Israel. Here's one more: perhaps, at this point in time, confessing unhappiness seems to many Israelis—even if only on a subconscious level—like admitting that Israel has failed them. This goes beyond wondering whether Israel really is, for Jews, the safest place on Earth, or if Jews are indeed better off as citizens of the Jewish state rather than, say, as of the United States.
It goes even deeper because in contrast to high spirits in polls, Israel's discourse is actually pretty gloomy, being extremely busy weighing once and again old and new existential threats. The distinct presence of the Holocaust in Israel's day-to-day reality—from high school trips to Auschwitz to Netanyahu's recurrent public comparisons of Iran with Nazi Germany—adds another horrifying layer to that sense of an acute existential fragility. The atmosphere is so filled with chatter about catastrophe that it tends to impute diabolical dimensions to almost every challenge Israel faces, turning it, in the public's mindset, into yet another existential threat. So much so, in fact, that for quite a while now it is not necessarily the external threats that terrify Israelis to the extent of fear of extinction, but rather the home-made ones—crime, for example, or poverty.
Admitting discontent, therefore, is not just admitting that the Zionist vision may have gone astray. It is also admitting that it has lost its path so badly that it turned into its own enemy: the main manufacturer of self-destructing existential threats. Sure enough, the practical way to avoid catastrophe would be to toss the panic, face the challenges and start pushing Israel as far as possible from its destructive path. But, as the IDI index found, Israelis feel too powerless for that. No wonder putting on a mask of national content became, for the Israeli soul, the last resort.