Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel and America: A Risky Comparison

Why has Israel become a startup nation par excellence? Why is driving a car in Israel so hazardous? One answer is that both these seemingly unrelated questions are two sides of the same coin: Israeli culture abounds in, and thrives with, risk.

Americans (especially) visiting Israel come away appalled by certain social practices: Israelis let their 8-year-olds walk to school by themselves? Or take public transportation without adult supervision? Drivers cut through highway lanes as if it were the Indianapolis 500? And then they hear (but don’t get to see) other “crazy” phenomena such as 20-year-olds leading a platoon of soldiers in live-fire training (and battle, when needed)?

In the U.S. parents have been arrested for letting their 9-year-old child walk home from school unattended. Playgrounds have to follow strict design requirements lest Jimmy and Donna scrape their knee or injure their elbow. Not to mention pharmaceutical commercials that (by law) have to spend more airtime warning about possible, negative side effects than the time allotted to actually marketing their product! And now, most recently, the U.S. (and Europe – suffering from the same risk-aversion “malady”) are halting the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine because less than 0.00001% (6 people out of 7 million!) came down with blood clots – a number/proportion infinitesimally smaller than those in danger of getting the deadly virus.

Risk-taking and risk-aversion are psycho-cultural phenomena, and they are “holistic”, i.e., they cannot be ghettoized into specific areas of life. For instance, society cannot make playgrounds super safe and then expect children to grow up and become daring in adulthood. As Wordsworth put it: “The child is the father of man”. Similarly, independence of action and thought is not something formally taught but rather osmotically socialized almost from birth.

Notice that I just wrote “independence of… thought”. The U.S. is in the throes of another type of risk aversion, one surprising given that ostensibly this is the “Land of the Free”: political correctness. It is no longer enough to be circumspect in activity; Americans are now enjoined to be careful of what – and how – they say things. A recent study (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3647099) found this sad state of affairs: whereas during the height of McCarthyism in the 1950s only 13.4% of Americans felt less free to speak their minds, by 2019 that had risen to 40%!! Matters have gotten so bad that college “safe spaces” (to enable students to “recuperate” from emotionally trying things that their professor teaches) have become the quasi-adult version of the ultra-safe playground. Unfortunately, the old adage still holds: “No Pain, No Gain”!

Israel has little PC. Quite the opposite: “dugri” (saying it like it is; straight to the point) is the standard. This is one of the central reasons that the country is a world leader in… protest demonstrations! Contemporary pointed talk in the form of argumentation (a la the Talmud) is not merely a micro (person-to-person) matter; it spills over today into the macro-realm of politics and societal intercourse in general (echoing the biblical Prophets against the monarchy and idol-worshipping Israelites).

It’s little wonder, then, that Israeli kids brought up to be independent, to express themselves without fear of social reprobation, should eventually think out-of-the-box as adults in business, science, technology, and other fields of intellectual endeavor (including warfare).

Of course, things weren’t always like this. The U.S. and Israel alike were born through decisions that carried a huge risk. The colonies back in the 1770s were weak compared to the might of the British Empire; demanding and fighting for independence (sedition and rebellion) was a decidedly risky affair for all “Americans” concerned. Ben-Gurion faced an equally daunting challenge when faced with several Arab armies ready to invade the fledgling state if he “dared” to declare independence. And yet both new countries took the risk and prevailed.

America, then, would do well to recall its own start – and if that’s too far back, at least take a leaf out of the book of real life from its younger and far smaller ally Israel. This is not to say that we should all go skydiving or climb Mt. Everest. It is to note, however, that trying to remove risk at almost all costs is far more costly – socially and economically – than letting calculated risk be a normal part of life.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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