Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Miracle That is Israel

Back in the Old Days, before people decided transplanting European ideas into non-European climes was colonial, paternalist and just plain evil, the Zionist project was often held up as a shining example of what could be achieved by people determined to lift themselves by their boot straps. The fact the Zionists could be portrayed as fine socialists gave an added fillip to supporting them, though the reality was never so clear; most of the Jews were escaping persecution in Europe or the Arab world, or fulfilling an ancient dream, or both; socialism was a fetish of a small group - but it was the powerful, leading group.

For decades there was a fundamental alignment between what we might loosely call the Left and Zionism, even if it was based partially on images and impressions, and the reality was always more complex. Seen from this perspective, the end of the affinity was the result of the Left redefining it's Weltanschauung, not a change in Zionism.

In recent decades there's a growing affinity between Zionism and the free-market Right. This, too, can easily be taken too far, and like it's predecessor position, it's built partially upon a willful editing and simplifying of the complexity that is Israel. Still, just as the previous alignment was based on some factual fundaments, so is this one.

Here's perhaps the most lucid exposition of the new alignment I've seen in quite a while. It's an article by George Gilder in City, and seems to be a synopsis of his new book The Israel Test.

I recognize not everyone likes George Gilder. He's a ferocious capitalist, one of the formulators of supply-side economics. I'll bet he's not at all a supporter of Obamacare. He's a prophet of the entrepreneur class, and of the idea that human ingenuity, if given the freedom to succeed and fail unimpeded, will make for a better world, while government needs mostly to get out of the way.

His article, and apparently his book, see Israel as the single most important place in the world right now, perhaps alongside Silicon Valley, where human ingenuity is forging a better reality. He's not Jewish; he's not a Zionist; he seems not to have had any position on Israel at all for most of his life (he's almost 70). Like many a recent convert, he sees his new love in a better light than it deserves.

Having said all that, however, there's basically a lot of truth to his description - and of course, it's lots of fun to read. Most gratifying, and better than a month's worth of The Guardian or three months of Mondoweiss. Near the end, he waxes a bit poetical
During a trip to Israel in 2008, Fruchter, Amir Eyal, and Guy Koren of EZchip
took me out to dinner in Caesarea. The restaurant was on the Mediterranean
beach. Above the beach stood the ruins of Roman temples and terraces, theaters
and arches, all surfaced with golden sandstone and carefully refurbished and
illuminated. Shops and restaurants were decorously arrayed along the beach. The
rush of water on the sand, the scent of fish in the air, the glow of sunset, and
the lights on the Roman stone all lent the area a magical feeling of peace and

The last time the Jews tangled with the Romans, the Jews came out a very sorry second best. Yet the Romans are long since gone, very long; the Jews, meanwhile, have set up snazzy restaurant's on their ruins and are peering around the corner to see how much of late 20th century technology they can make obsolete by the end of next year.


Aviv said...

Gilder writes an ode to Bibi Netanyahu and Silicon Wadi, including shout-outs regarding the Technion.

My takeaways:
1. Gilder praises the wave of privatization of the mid 00's, from Bezeq thru El Al and the Oil Refineries to Zim. No mention of selling state properties for ridiculous prices to an increasingly small, smelly group of the outrageously rich, like the Ofer Brothers. Most capitalist countries try to restrain monopolies and oligopolies.
2. Notice there is no discussion of the Hi-Tech bubble. Whoops! I guess capitalism ain't perfect after all.
3. No discussion of how engineer numbers in Israel jumped thanks to the French halt in supplying armaments in the 1960's. Israel realized it would have to build its military industries itself and started training engineers for that purpose.
4. The former Soviet Union is running out of smart Jews and there are no guarantees Israel can keep up the pace in generating similar numbers of homegrown ones.
5. There's so much discussion of Haifa in this piece, and thanks to poor urban development, Haifa has so precious little to show for it. Evidently the smart Israelis are in business - not in the government sector, at any level.

marek said...

That's my impression of the book too.
Gilder has been carried away quite a bit, but I would be hard pressed to find another instance of such a success in similar circumstances. So let us bask a bit in the sunshine.

Shalom, Cherry Hill said...

To Aviv,

Regarding your points:

2. I didn’t read Gilder’s book, but I don’t know of anyone who claims that capitalism is perfect; it’s just by far the best of all imperfect possibilities.

3. Why would this be a knock on his thesis? A market need was identified and filled.

4. What guarantees are there in any realm of life?

5. Exactly! In most places, smart people go into business, not government. Generally, government work gives security and rewards conformity, not success. Just look at the case in the US of Jose Melendez-Perez, the Dept of Transportation employee who refused to let in the 20th 9/11 hijacker, despite his supervisor and coworkers warning him that he could be fired for profiling. Not only was he not rewarded or promoted for doing his job properly, unlike the people who didn’t catch the other hijackers, but when a book about him was just published and the publishers wanted to pay for a plane ticket and hotel room for him to come for the promotion of the book (which he wasn’t making any money on) he was told that it is against department policy to receive a gift for anything job related. What kind of incentive is that for qualified people to go to work for the government.

Aviv said...


Thanks for your comments.

2. Me neither, I was just writing about the article. Capitalism isn't perfect because people aren't perfect. One of their imperfections, for example, is that they try to game the system, so sometimes you need some gov'tal regulation to stop that from happening.

3. Not a knock on his thesis, just a major factor that was ignored. (State involvement in the economy continuously drove this, btw - This *does* knock on it).

4. Haifa is corrupt, the local media is rigged and the populace hardly votes or cares about city politics. That is the main problem.

Shalom, Cherry Hill said...

Hi, Aviv,

One could probably replace 'Haifa' with the name of pretty much any other city in the world.

More and more, I'm beginning to worry that I'm becoming a crotchety old cynic.