Watching the news from my living room in Tel Aviv had me questioning, if the dichotomy we have in mind, of cultures and societies being either individualistic or collectivist, was still relevant?
We were taught that cultures can be divided into two opposing types: individualistic or collectivist, with societies leaning towards one or the other. An individualistic culture is one in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. In contrast, in a collectivist culture people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive groups. Countries in Western Europe and the U.S. are generally individualistic. In these countries, personal achievements and the individuals rights are of primary importance. Countries, such as Guatemala, China, Japan and South Korea, are at the other end of the spectrum. In these countries, unselfish behavior, the importance of the (extended) family, and cooperation are highly valued. However, just because a culture is individualistic or collectivist does not eliminate the tension between the two values. This tension is derived from the human need to experience group belonging in conjunction with the need to feel like a differentiated individual. This tension is basic to the human experience. Our self-definition consists not just of idiosyncratic attitudes, memories, and behaviors that distinguish ourselves from others (our personal identities) but also collective attitudes, memories, and behaviors drawn from the groups to which we belong (our social identities). Peoples identities are complex constructions of both their cultural world and their individual personality. In cultures that are clearly individualistic or collectivist, one value often comes at the expense of the other. Interestingly enough, Israeli society is a blend of individualistic and collectivist cultures. This is not to say that the tension between the individual and the collective does not exist, but merely that both values coexist without stepping on each others toes. Thanks to this balance, the expression of individual differentiation and group belonging can take place simultaneously. This is done, for instance, by maximizing group-level distinctiveness – when people identify with groups that are strongly differentiated from the mainstream. Israel does not have a mainstream- politically, religiously or culturally.
Political and religious affiliations are so diversified that the number of sub-groups are uncountable. For example, among the Jews of Israel, there are orthodox, ultra-orthodox, reform, conservative, secular, traditional, and so on. Paradoxically, because there are so many sub-groups, by expressing ones loyalty to a certain collective, one is actually expressing his or her individuality. Take for example this modern Israeli song that any Israeli boy or girl knows by heart My Land of Israel by Datya Ben-Dror:
My land of Israel is beautiful and blooming
Who built and who planted?
All of us together!
I built a house in the land of Israel
So we have a land And we have a house in the land of Israel..
This song is taught throughout Israel in preschools usually in preparation for Independence Day. It tells the story of how Israel was built out of the joint effort of individuals. This simple childrens song is both symbolic and insightful. It simply expresses a unique aspect of Israeli society: the positive tension that exists between the group and the individual. Throughout the song, different speakers present their personal contribution:
I planted a tree…
I paved a road…
I built a bridge.
Each of these lines is answered by a chorus of voices, which sings:
So we have a country,
we have a house,
we have a tree,
we have a road.
To the question: Who built and who planted?
The answer is: All of us together!
Group creativity and cooperation are in harmony with individual creativity and independence. This positive tension also fosters the creativity, innovation, and resourcefulness we see in Israeli start-ups. One might ask where does the positive tension emanate from? I would argue that it comes from the diversity of Israel’s citizens. Israel is one of the most diversified countries in the world. Its population consists primarily of immigrants from all over the world. In fact, in 2014, 25% of the Jewish-Israeli population were immigrants; 35% were children of immigrants, and another 40% were second generation (their grandparents were immigrants). It would be quite a challenge to find a country from which there was no immigration to Israel. It is well documented that group diversity is a hothouse for creativity and innovation. On a national level, diversity has a tremendous, positive influence on a country’s culture and economy. It is enough to look at the numerous successful American companies that were founded either by immigrants or their children: according to Forbes, 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Mind you, these are no small companies – Apple, Google, AT&T, Budweiser, Colgate, eBay, General Electric, IBM, and McDonalds just to name a few – owe their origin to a founder who was either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. When group diversity becomes a national given, as it is in the US and Israel, it becomes one of that nations most valuable assets.
The connection between immigration and the creation of a diversified society is clear. But what is the connection between immigrants and entrepreneurship? To begin with, and almost by definition, immigrants are risk takers and hard workers. They make the bold choice to leave their home countries and communities to set off on their own. Upon arriving in a new land, immigrants find themselves in an environment that is unfamiliar to them physically and culturally. They must quickly learn to adapt. For that, they need to be quick learners. Being a risk taker, a hard worker and a fast learner are the foundations for good business people. Combine an immigrant population with a collectivist society that fosters individual creativity and you have the foundation for a start-up nation. Now, all you have to do is to keep these values strong, perhaps by teaching them to your children through song.