image
In modern Israel, volunteering is widespread. Courtesy of Jerusalem Online University

The plotline: As Israel heads toward its 64th Independence Day on April 26, the teacher of Harvard’s most popular course returns home to Israel and takes a fresh look at the society he had left behind 15 years earlier.

“The Israel I came back to was not the Israel I left. … Israel had not only joined the 21st century; in many ways it was now leading the way,” Tal Ben-Shahar explains in the introduction to “Israel Inside: How a Small Nation Makes a Big Difference” (www.israelinsidethemovie.com). “The technology coming out of Israel is being used to connect the world, green the planet, save lives, and have fun.”

The new 55-minute documentary will be screened on PBS affiliate stations, in theaters, and in 85 communities in the United States, China, and India. Its world premiere is on the evening of April 16 at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where Ben-Shahar will speak.

“New Jersey is one of our most important markets,” said Amy Holtz, president of the educational portal Jerusalem Online University (www.jerusalemonlineu.com), which produced the film with award-winning documentarian Raphael Shore (“Relentless,” “Obsession,” and “The Third Jihad”). The movie will be shown at Rae Kushner High School in Livingston on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood the night of April 28, and at Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck on April 29.

At a press screening in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, Ben-Shahar explained that whereas many people think of war, camels, and falafel when they hear the word “Israel,” he instead pictures “a country that is about technology, about prosperity, about giving. This film shows that beautifully.”

Scriptwriter Rebecca Shore, originally from New Rochelle, said her goal was to understand how Israel attracted native son Ben-Shahar to return, despite his success in the Boston area. “That’s the compelling question of the film,” she said. “The film was our attempt to get to the ‘kishkes’ of what’s driving this place. We wanted to go to the essence of what makes us Israelis do what we do.”

Ben-Shahar, a “positive psychology” expert and the author of the bestsellers “Happier” and “Being Happy,” is well qualified to examine Israel from the angle of its human resources.

“I am one of the founders of The David Project, an Israel advocacy organization,” he said. “For years I went around campuses helping people gain a different perspective. And then I started teaching positive psychology, which is all about happiness, joy, love, strength, and success. The class became the most popular one at Harvard, but something else happened, too. I never discussed Israel directly. But when I talked about the effect of visuals on our well-being, I’d explain that I have flags of my two favorite countries – Israel and the United States – and I’d actually take out the flags and wave them.

“I can’t tell you how many students came to me and said how they felt so proud of Israel, of being Jewish, or of supporting the Jewish state. It changed the conversation around the country. And that’s what this film is about: changing the conversation, changing the focus. We know that focus creates reality. It’s not about ignoring Israel’s faults, but we have a lot to celebrate.”

Ben-Shahar identified six “actualizers,” overarching values he believes are responsible for Israeli society’s triumph against the odds: family, using adversity to advantage, chutzpah, education, taking action, and tikkun olam (repairing the world). “In combination, these actualizers have led to almost unparalleled progress, success, and contribution to the world.”

Raphael Shore said the film will be featured in Jerusalem Online University’s campaign, Step Up for Israel.

“In the longer term, we’ll be running programs around it, taking parts of the film and letting people engage with it on a deeper level,” he said. “For example, at Jewish camps there will be programs for campers about taking the actualizers described in the film and applying them to their own lives.”

Shore stressed that he doesn’t expect the documentary to change minds, but to give “the 70 percent of people who are indifferent about Israel, or feel fatigued by the discussion,” the basis to form an opinion. “Our goal is to create positive relationships with Israel and show the human face of Israel beyond the conflict,” he said.

Ben-Shahar added, “This film is no less important for Israelis than for the rest of the world. One of the principles of positive psychology is that a happy distraction can help you deal with conflict, to gain resilience to deal with problems. I see this as part of my overall agenda in education.”

In the film, he relates that “I get more parenting advice in one day here than I did in all my years in the United States combined. This warmth, caring, and togetherness breeds healthy interdependence, healthy independence, and healthy self-esteem.”

Rebecca Shore argued that “Israel Inside” was not meant as propaganda. “It is about the heart of the Jewish people reaching out the heart of the world. That’s not hasbara [public relations]; that’s education.”