By Douglas Altabef
The history of the rebirth of Israel — the return to the land and its resettlement and flourishing — had very little to do with material wealth. The ethos of the kibbutz movement was actually profoundly anti-materialistic, and often self-righteously so.
Many kibbutznikim had been middle-class Europeans who abandoned a bourgeois lifestyle in favor of a more rugged, direct and land-enthralled one of collective responsibility. Material wealth was often frowned upon as being decadent or, at a minimum, a hindrance to the work at hand, which was the restoration of the land under Jewish sovereignty.
Under the sway of socialist-oriented governments and leadership, Israel had a lackluster economy for decades. And the specter of material wealth was the province of “the 18 families,” a sliver of the population who were out-and-out rich. There was a small middle class and the immigrants who, as the old joke went, came to Israel to become millionaires by arriving as multi-millionaires.
The story of Israel’s economy and wealth accumulation during the past 20 years stands in stark contrast to its prior history. The confluence of several factors, including a brain in-migration, an ethos of innovation and high-risk tolerance and reduced governmental regulation and restriction, all combined to create the “start-up nation.”
But what has truly sent the start-up nation into the economic stratosphere has been the simple reality that what Israel is brilliant at innovating, the world wants in a major way. This fact, combined with the happy reality that such innovation has not had to be terribly capital-intensive, has provided the perfect positive storm for Israel’s economic advancement.
Nowhere has that advancement been as prominent, pronounced or visible as it has been in the technology sector. While it is estimated that approximately 10 percent of Israel’s workforce is devoted to tech, the per capita impact of tech workers is estimated at somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of Israel’s economic output and wealth creation.
In other words, workers in tech are higher paid, in many cases vastly higher paid, than the average Israeli.
While we could devote chapters to the implications of a booming tech sector, suffice it to say that it’s a mixed blessing. Such prosperity has filled the tax coffers of the government, enabling it to do more on behalf of the broader population. Tech success has had a pronounced ripple effect, creating and benefiting service industries and providing for more variety and diversity in areas like food and clothing and, for those who can afford it, housing and automobiles.
Such prosperity has put Israel at the table of the leading world economies, as validated by its admission into the OECD in 2010. Furthermore, economic success has made Israel a more attractive aliyah possibility for many Jews of more developed countries, whose Zionist aspirations were often inhibited by a fear of suffering tremendous economic diminution. No longer.
That’s the good news. And it is good news, indeed, for, as one American pundit put it, “Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.”
So where does the downside lie? First of all, disparities of wealth have always been with us, and likely always will. There has been, however, understandable concern about the increasing, almost unprecedented disparities of wealth that now define much of the West.
I would submit that such disparities per se need not be problematic. The issue has become how such disparities have been employed by the uber-rich, and the resulting mindset that has been taking hold.
Every year, the global elite gather in Davos, Switzerland, to validate their own economic supremacy and to play at being an unaccountable super-legislature on behalf of the rest of us. Most recently, the Davos crew has initiated the Great Global Reset, which is an initiative that, under their auspices, will address climate change and other global issues, such as population growth.
If your stomach is tightening, there is a good reason for it. Basically, these are plutocratic initiatives, where the oligarchs of wealth and privilege are deciding what is in the best interests of the rest of us.
What marks these gatherings and this agenda is the strong sense that each of the attendees can more readily relate to their global counterparts than the great unwashed among their own citizenry.
Not only that. It is presumed both that the unwashed do not know what is in their best interests, and also that therefore only the elites should be enfranchised to decide. The trend therefore is toward more internationalism, here economically driven, and a decoupling of elites from their own nations.
The overarching power of uber-tech companies, such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, is also indicative of worldwide forces that increasingly see their missions in both international and super-legislative modes.
The upshot of this situation will be an increasing bifurcation of individual societies, as the members of the great middle feel that their elites are not focused on their welfare; even worse, where regular folks believe that elites are willing to sacrifice the interests of the great middle in favor of a larger, more abstract agenda.
This is increasingly the unfolding disaster in the United States, where progressive policies are not only dividing the nation politically, but also are giving elites an agenda to drive a deeper, existential wedge in the country.
How does all of this affect Israel? The answer today is that we do not yet know, but the country should be very concerned and prepared to do all it can to prevent this phenomenon of bifurcation from taking place.
While every society strives for unity, Israel’s is ultimately dependent on it. Few, if any, countries in the world — certainly not the wealthy, developed countries of the West — are facing existential threats on their borders. Such threats have typically fostered a sense of unity, a bedrock understanding that, regardless of our other differences, Israelis must stand together or we will all fall together.
I pray that Israel doesn’t cultivate a detached elite, driven by newfound wealth, which finds more affinities with international elites than with its fellow Israelis. Ironically, such an effort would backfire badly, because global elites hate the nationalistic character of Israel, and also embrace the Palestinians as a show of virtue-signaling.
So, craven Israeli elites seeking international camaraderie will inevitably have to turn away from —and, possibly, have to turn on — their own countrymen to achieve such unattainable acceptance.
How can Israel proactively address this situation such that it prevents the dreaded outcome? Making sure that national service continues to be honored by the children of elites is a must. Anecdotally, I am hearing of increasing numbers of wealthy families figuring out how to keep their kids out of the Israel Defense Forces. That must stop.
Some kind of Jewish participation would be a great antidote to separation and dissociation. And above all, Jewish youth must continue to be taught Zionist history and values, with the fundamental message that we are all part of a people who has been blessed to return to its ancestral homeland, under Jewish sovereignty.
Prosperity in Israel is a great blessing, but one that needs to be directed toward the greater good of its citizens, and not ever to be allowed to become a dividing wedge.
Douglas Altabef is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund.