Equality, Liberty and Jewish Economics
By Moshe Feiglin
The State of Israel is up in arms and everyone is protesting: Doctors, anarchists, homeless, renters who would like to be home-owners, parents, teachers, taxi drivers and more. Some of the protests are real, some are fake, some are authentic, while others hide a different agenda behind their protest signs. It’s a mixed and very confusing bag of events that has broken out in our summer heat and it is rocking our government.
It is difficult to sort out what is true and what is false. On the one hand, we all feel economic pressure. Whoever is getting married and looking for a place to live or whose children are doing so knows that this is an impossible situation. More than 120 average salaries are required to buy a reasonable apartment within a reasonable driving distance from Israel’s center, where most jobs are located. Our parents in the 1950’s and 60’s needed only half this sum to buy a home that they could call their own. Then, they worked eight hours a day, came home when the children were still awake and managed to cover their expenses with their salaries.
Today? Who works only eight hours? And who manages to save even one shekel by the end of the month? A family of seven that eats only the very simplest of food cannot get by without a food bill of thousands of shekels, to which they must add their expenses for tuition, transportation, housing etc.
There is no doubt about it; the pressure is real.
On the other hand, Israel’s economy is flourishing, and we all feel it. All of us – not only the wealthy. The cafés are packed to the brim. Tens of thousands of Israelis are vacationing this summer overseas. New cars are jamming our highways.
How can we explain this dissonance? Let us begin to peel off the layers of the onion.
First of all, we will remove the first layer; the layer of the protest “leaders”. It is actually quite easy to understand what is happening at the protest camps. Someone in the most radical Left understood that they have no chance to win a direct ideological debate with the Right. So they chose a more sophisticated tactic and wrapped their political/ideological agenda around genuine distress, channeling it to undermine the government.
Financial backing from Israel’s enemies through the good offices of the New Israel Fund together with generous aid from Israel’s media came together to create a huge gust in the sails of the anarchists who suddenly sprang up as authentic street leaders. At first, they enjoyed public approval, but after a few days, when the leaders of the struggle were pressed to logically formulate their demands, they were revealed in all their delinquency and the public got the picture.
So now we are left with the real issue minus the smokescreen. Are things good? Or are they bad? Israel’s economy is excellent, no question about it. Technically, its citizens should be in a reasonable economic state. But the unease is genuine.
There are islands of lack of competition that have raised prices of certain commodities. The housing shortage is the result of the almost complete monopoly that the State enjoys, holding 93% of the land in the country. Another factor is the building freeze in Judea and Samaria. An amazing fact that has not been getting much publicity is that most of the land marketed in Israel comes from the 7% that is in private hands. In other words, the State has a built-in interest not to market its land, and to profit from the rise in land prices. The main share of the price of a new apartment is the price of the land. In this way, home-owning hopefuls have become a golden goose for Israel’s Treasury. The high cost of food is also the result of hidden monopolies. Paving the way for more imports will lower the prices in no time.
That being said, the root of the distress and the protest is much deeper. In order to relieve the distress, we must enlist standards that are much different than the economic standards with which we are familiar today.
The first standard that we must enlist is the equality index.
Our Sages teach us that if a wealthy person is accustomed to servants who run before his carriage, the greater community must supply him with this level of comfort even if he has lost his wealth. This is the level of loving kindness that we must provide for him.
In other words, there are objective and subjective standards. In other times, nobody would complain about the economic conditions that we are experiencing today. But today, the model for comparison is not a tent in a refugee town, but rather a villa with all the modern comforts to which we have been accustomed. The lack of equality between those who can afford that standard of living and those who cannot creates hard feelings that turn into public protests.
The hard feelings are intensified by the ever-increasing salary gap. It is one thing to live on 5,000 shekels a month. But to live on that salary when others in society are paid ten times that amount – is something else altogether.
Another standard that we will have to enlist to understand the distress is the liberty index. When a person works 14 hours a day and never knows how long he will be kept on the payroll, it doesn’t make much difference how much he earns. One way or another, he no longer enjoys liberty. He has become a modern slave.
These two standards; equality and liberty, are really in our own hands. We decide which societal model we would like to emulate. We also decide how much of our liberty we are willing to forgo in order to enjoy the standard of living that we have decided to emulate. To put it simply, the ‘social uprising’ is really against ourselves.
But it is not that simple. Man is a social animal. Very few people are capable of living with independent standards in a society that holds other standards dear.
The problem, then, is social or on a deeper level, ideological. The State of Israel was founded on the coattails of socialism and until the middle of the 1980’s was mired in its culture of robbery. Israel’s citizens would hide their wealth (a.k.a. “the under the floor tile savings plan”) and would be embarrassed by their economic success. The work culture was based on lethargy; one’s connections to officialdom were much more important than entrepreneurship, industriousness and education. The national debt, inflation, unemployment, gross national product and every other index responded in kind. Israel was a state on crutches.
The fall of the Communist bloc raised the banner of free-market capitalism and sent a vast human treasure of industrious and educated new citizens into Israel. High-tech, well-suited to Jewish genius and the problem of marketing Israeli end-products in the world was the perfect solution and Israel has become a true high-tech superpower.
But this was the beginning of the downfall that has led to the social uprising that we are now experiencing. Our newfound wealth has no support system in Israeli culture; no deep tradition of faith and loving kindness that could refine, restrain and above all – give direction and a goal for all the energies bursting forth.
When a nation has no national vision, it begins to fray. With no clear cultural roadmap, the economic turnabout brought about a turnabout in social norms. The concealment of wealth from the exploitation of the socialist establishment was a bad situation, but it did create fertile ground for values like modest-living and making do with very little. The surge of the pendulum to the free market also trampled those positive elements. The free market Israeli capitalism unleashed a culture of competitive ostentatiousness. People began to spend more money than they could really afford. If in the past, Israelis were embarrassed by what they could afford, today they take pride in their acquisitions – even though they cannot afford them.
Israeli society has become captive to a culture that, behind the smokescreen of freedom, negates our liberty. It is easy to be confused by the two terms. But in their essence, they are mutually exclusive. Liberty means taking responsibility, while freedom means absolving oneself of responsibility. The culture that developed with the new capitalism included a highly visible element of voracious freedom; a dimension of “grab what you can and don’t be responsible for anything but yourself – if anything at all.”
The culture of freedom that relinquishes responsibility and by default, liberty, has led us to a serious deterioration of human rights. We prefer to get more and more freedom in exchange for ever greater sacrifices of our liberty. We prefer to cast our basic responsibilities on the State. “Let the State take responsibility for our children,” one of the leaders of the parent’s protest said last week.
Police brutality toward demonstrators has intensified and become more violent. Policemen in masks – a blatant characteristic of totalitarian regimes previously unseen here, black uniforms, policemen who are no longer policemen but rather, fighters are now a common sight: Who exactly is their enemy?
Wholesale eavesdropping on citizens has become routine. The biometric law that labels citizens as if they were cattle has passed its first reading in the Knesset. Why does it matter? After all, with all our modern technology that has brought us so much freedom to talk, text and to be in contact from anywhere to anywhere – we are all transparent anyway. Who will dare relinquish all of this freedom in exchange for an undefined piece of liberty?
Liberty is quite evasive. It is easy to lose it without even noticing. Then, in the protest tents, they can’t figure out how to formulate a list of demands because they do not understand the root of their distress. They do not know what they want, because a person wants to live and there is no life without liberty.
Paradoxically, we are experiencing quite a lot of aspects of Orwell’s 1984 – from within a capitalistic regime. Even Orwell couldn’t have come up with that: cultural tyranny without a tyrant; the loss of liberty from the midst of wealth and economic growth as a cultural process that has no address other than us.
When a family goes out for the evening to the shopping mall, they are actually designating consumerism as their culture. It is not unusual to spot couples with small children strolling through the malls at ten o’ clock at night. That is the only time that they have to spend with their children after a work day much longer than eight hours. Now they are going to spend the money that they earned at the price of their liberty, exchanging it for more material success that the culture of consumerism forces upon them. Do they enjoy liberty? Or are they slaves?
Do not be mistaken. The tycoon who owns the mall is drowning in the very same swamp. He has not worked any less than the butterflies that have been captured in the net that he suspended between his dazzling storefronts. He is also caught up in unrelenting, impossible competition and is captive to the method and the culture no less than the smallest of his consumers.
Now we must return the baby that we threw out with the polluted Socialist bathwater back into the tub.
Socialism is a sophisticated form of robbery. If it is fine to rob the wealthy because he has wealth, then once the moral dam is broken, the immorality will not stop with a particular person. In no time, the rich layer of society is erased and the same method is applied to the next layer. Before you know it, it also reaches you. And you thought that you would be able to enjoy the spoils.
When the method reaches the back lines, it begins to take much more than money. Because if a person thinks that it is fine to take another person’s money, he will ultimately allow himself to take his life. Property rights are not a luxury – they define us as humans; they are one of the foundations that make a person, whom it is prohibited to slaughter, more than an animal, which we are allowed to slaughter. All the absolute socialist regimes eventually perpetrated mass murder of their own nation. Liberty is the foundation of human life. Loss of liberty precedes its loss.
There is no economic method other than free economy. The problem is not with free economy, but rather with the culture that encases it. It is not capitalism that negated our liberty, but rather the hedonistic culture that came with it.
Solidarity, loving kindness, modesty, personal example, respect for others, education: How will we establish a culture that highlights all of these while restraining, refining and directing the wealth that has become our lot?
We have no culture other than our Jewish culture. Israel’s economic system must be a triangle: its base is capitalistic liberty and its sides are Jewish faith and loving kindness. There, in the triangle, we can find the answer to the distress that has bubbled over the surface in Israel this summer.