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And its optimistic culture of “It’ll be alrightism”

The bright side of strife

In uncertain times it helps to be optimistic. In Israel, as Uri Bram explains, this has spawned a whole culture: “It’ll be alrightism”

In uncertain times it helps to be optimistic. In Israel, as Uri Bram explains, this has spawned a whole culture: “It’ll be alrightism”

Uri Bram | February/March 2017

In a brief victory for adventure over good sense, I agreed to join an old friend on a camping trip to an obscure Norwegian island. A few days before we landed she asked if there was any chance I could also bring a tent. She had organised, it transpired, exactly nothing. “It’ll be alright,” she said.

By sheer chance, I discovered that a beloved high-school friend had recently moved to that obscure part of Norway and was able to join us – and bring a tent. And find a campsite, and speak Norwegian. I tried to decide if my plan-less friend was a fool or a genius. On the one hand, it had worked out perfectly. On the other hand, it had only worked out by chance and because somebody else had done the work.

Israel has a fine tradition of “It’ll be alrightism”, which has two forms. Weak IBA implores people to accept imperfect circumstances. On crowded buses and in government offices, angry people are mollified by strangers with a half-dismissive, half-soothing “it’ll be alright” (in Hebrew: yihyeh b’seder, delivered with a click of the tongue and a slight bob of the head).

Weak IBA does not demand that a person be grateful or happy. It carves a middle path between optimism and pessimism. The Latin source for optimism is optimum, “best”, the belief that things will turn out perfectly. IBA is the belief that things will turn out tolerably. But in a world where things often turn out horrifically, even that is a form of positive thinking.

Strong IBA involves starting something without a plan, trusting that you’ll muddle through or that the details will be sorted out by someone else. My tentless camping friend is an inveterate IBAer, as is the taxi driver who drops you off ten minutes’ walk from your destination so he can more easily pick up a new fare. “It’ll be alright,” he says, and he is both completely correct (the walk won’t kill you) and evading his direct culpability for the only-alrightness of your newfound circumstances.

Some might argue that strong IBA is a natural response to the Pareto principle: if 20% of the effort creates 80% of the benefits, why bother doing the other 80% of the work? But it’s also a reaction to living in circumstances where the future is uncertain. David Grossman, an Israeli novelist, told Der Spiegel that while Germany plans the construction of its roads several decades in advance, “no sane Israeli would make such long-term plans. If I do it, I feel…as if I have violated a taboo by allowing myself quantities of future that are too great.”

How you feel about IBAism depends inevitably on where you come from and how you expect the world to work. Every well-to-do Israeli has spent at least six months in some idealised, semi-mythologised wealthy Western country (the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada) where the people were courteous and everything worked. She will compare Israeli IBAism negatively with her experience there. Others see IBA as a way to will dreams into reality. It is not a coincidence that strong IBA is a darling of the hackers of Silicon Valley, or that Israel punches far above its weight in the start-up scene. Strong IBA may be a make-do response to uncertain circumstances, but it also creates possibilities that a less audacious philosophy might not. Sometimes the tower only gets built because nobody sits down first to count the costs.

I must confess: the friend who lured me to Norway, the perfect embodiment of IBA, is a young American. I hereby repent for the travel writer’s great sin: implying that some trait belongs solely to one nation. There are countless other countries with strong strains of IBA. I have seen it in South-East Asia and east Africa, and if I travelled farther I would surely see it more. Is the attitude perfect? Certainly not. Will we gripe about it at every opportunity? Without doubt. And yet…

It’ll be alright. We have to believe it’ll be alright.

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