NEW YORK (Aug. 22, 2011) — If you thought Theodor Herzl’s dream was fulfilled with the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, think again. Thousands are camping out in Israel’s cities, demanding social change. Thousands more around the world, angered by the Palestinians’ situation, seek to boycott Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt, Israel and Gaza volley bombs and rockets in escalating attacks and counterattacks. Which brings us back to Herzl. His dream wasn’t simply the creation of a Jewish democratic state, but the creation of a model state — a place that would protect its environment, a place powered by clean, renewable energy, and a place where all people, regardless of religion, ethnicity or social class, would be treated fairly.
For the past month, Israelis camped out in Israel’s cities have been protesting a breakdown in the social contract — rapidly rising expenses as wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands — that marks a distancing from the Herzlian dream. Ten families control about 30 percent of Israel’s economy, leading to what’s become an oligopolic state. Yet 22 percent of Israelis are classified as food insecure — unable to access the amount of healthy food needed on a regular basis. A quarter of Israelis live in poverty. And housing prices can jump as much as 20 percent in a single year. These problems plague everyone — Jew and Arab, Orthodox and secular, Israeli-born sabra and new immigrant. Only the rich are immune. Israel has among the highest gaps between the rich and the poor of any developed country in the world.
“Among the objects of the protesters’ fury are the soaring cost of living — for housing, gasoline, food and a decent education — and the widely shared sense that Israel’s go-go economy has enriched a new class of elites and oligarchs while leaving middle-class families in the dust,” opined the Washington Post’s editorial board. “What does it matter if the country is spawning high-tech start-ups and posh restaurants, say the mostly young protesters, if hundreds of thousands of well-educated people with jobs can barely afford to pay rents that climb by five or 10 percent each year? Who cares whether unemployment is among the lowest of any rich nation if the distribution of income and wealth is among the most inequitable?”
The current system of wealth distribution didn’t evolve naturally. Rather, it’s the product of the privatization of government assets — such as Bezeq, the Bank of Israel and Israel Chemicals Ltd. — in the 1980s and 1990s under the supervision of finance ministers mostly from Likud, the party of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also served as prime minister in the 1990s. The trend continues today as the Netanyahu-led government prepares to privatize more state-owned corporations, including Israel Railways, Israel Aircraft Industries and Israel Military Industries.
“It was basically selling assets to cronies,” said Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress Director Daniel Doron, describing Israel’s privatization to The New York Times. “Today, the whole Israeli economy is built on rapacious elites fleecing consumers.”
And what about the state powered by clean, renewable energy that Herzl envisioned in his 1902 book AltNeuLand? More than 60 years after Israel’s founding, less than one percent of Israel’s electricity is produced by renewable energy. Instead, Israel is powered by coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel of all, releasing 200 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per one million BTU of heat generation. And in a few years, Israel will be powered by the relatively less-polluting natural gas, which emits 117 pounds of carbon per million BTU. The effect is disastrous: According to the World Health Organization, every year more people die due to air pollution in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area alone than from wars and terrorism in the entire state combined.
While Israel’s security situation is certainly an important issue, environmental degradation is far more deadly. Air pollution is an even bigger killer than accidents in oil-burning cars and trucks that, ironically, are major contributors to poor air quality.
To those who think that this month’s launch in Israel of the world’s first nationwide electric-car network is the solution, consider this: The cars may not be burning oil, but they run on batteries charged from the electric grid. And where does the electric grid get its energy? By burning fossil fuels.
An electric-car network is part of the answer, but it's not the solution. We need to transition Israel’s grid to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind. And we need to wean people off cars with better-planned cities, more bike paths and more public-transportation projects. Jerusalem recently took a step in the right direction with the opening this past Friday of a new light-rail system under the stewardship of Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, a Green Zionist Alliance advisory-board member. Tel Aviv needs to follow suit.
The Trouble with Boycotts
The Israeli Knesset members who this summer approved the “Boycott Law” have hurt Israel far more than any boycotter could. The law, which punishes those who call for boycotting Israel or products from the territories, tramples on the right to free speech and only serves to strengthen the arguments of those who wish to delegitimize Israel.
Just as Israel shouldn’t boycott the boycotters, those who seek to promote a method of BDS — boycott, divestment and sanctions — against Israel in order to convince the country to take more active steps leading to a Palestinian state are also being counterproductive. Israel’s Boycott Law proves that the current Israeli administration responds to BDS pressures simply by digging in its heels harder. The leaders of the ruling parties already feel as if Israel is isolated — boycotting the country doesn’t make them reconsider their decisions, but rather makes them feel that their actions are even more justified. Simultaneously, BDS undermines the many Israelis who are fighting politically and socially for change by delegitimizing them and their struggle in the eyes of the world. BDS isn’t the path to change — it’s the path to more of the same.
Additionally, Israel remains a vibrant democracy based on the Western model of free elections, an independent judicial system and freedoms of speech, religion and assembly. Singling out Israel as a subject for boycott instead of the dozens of countries in the world that deny their people these freedoms is simply unfair. Make no mistake: Israel needs policy change very badly — the security situation is the single-largest excuse and distraction preventing policymakers from seriously addressing the issues of environmental degradation and the society’s gaping socio-economic divide. But pushing BDS is both an unfair and an ineffective method of pursuing change.
Similarly, stripping the Jewish National Fund of its nonprofit status, as demanded by some in both the United States and the United Kingdom, is ill advised. Certainly, the Green Zionist Alliance has taken issue with some of JNF’s activities — such as the unsustainably planned Blueprint Negev project and its impact on both the desert ecosystem and the Bedouins — but JNF is a valuable institution that needs repair, not destruction. Like both Israel and America, JNF does far more good than bad, and the GZA will continue working to further green both JNF and Israel.
Tackling Problems Head On
It is folly to think that the issues with how the Israeli government treats both its own citizens and Palestinians will go away if we just ignore them long enough.
The situation with the Palestinians isn’t likely to get better until there’s a mutually agreed-upon final agreement that ensures a peaceful future. Air pollution, energy production, overconsumption of water and badly planned land use will persist as problems until policy remedies are enacted. And although the protesters in Israel’s streets may eventually leave their tent cities, unless their concerns are addressed and the social contract is repaired, the root problems behind the protests will remain.
Implementing solutions may be difficult, but the cost of inaction is far greater.
To address the Palestinian situation, both parties must negotiate and be willing to make painful compromises that lead to a Palestinian state peacefully living alongside a continued Jewish democratic state of Israel.
To address environmental degradation, we need a transition to renewable-energy production coupled with new efforts at reducing water usage, increasing land conservation (such as saving the endangered Samar sand dunes in the Arava Valley), supporting sustainable agricultural methods that use less water and energy while reducing pollution, and developing communities that encourage alternatives to cars.
And to address the social unrest, Israel must restore the social contract and reprioritize people. Following the lead of governments that break up large anti-competitive corporations, the oligopoly that controls nearly a third of Israel’s wealth may need to be broken up as well. Laws already limit the amount of foreign ownership for companies in certain industries; new laws may be needed to limit the concentration of familial ownership as well. Israel needs to reinvest in education, healthcare and the environment. Capitalism needn’t be scrapped, but laws can be passed that create minimum and maximum standards of living. As Rabbi Michael Melchior asks, how many cars can one person drive anyway?
The high cost of housing has been another major factor in the protests. But the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough apartments — rather, it’s how those apartments are allocated. About a third of luxury apartments in Israel are second or third homes that are unused for most of the year, but nonetheless push up real-estate prices across all income classes. Netanyahu’s plan in response to the protests — to build 10,000 dorm rooms while stripping property-tax exemptions from 140,000 vacant apartments — is a good start, but it’s not enough to alleviate Israel’s housing crunch. Wealthy Americans who keep apartments just outside the Old City for the holidays may not want to hear this, but Israel should resurrect a plan from last year that would heavily tax vacant apartments, essentially incentivizing the rental of vacant second and third homes like those that dominate Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Such a move not only would go much further to increase the rental supply, but it also could revitalize city centers now filled with vacant homes.
While such a move would help address Israel’s housing crunch, it doesn’t fully address all of the socio-economic problems that have led to this summer’s protests. What’s needed is a green New Deal. Fortunately, this past week the Green Movement — the GZA’s sister organization in Israel co-chaired by GZA co-founder Dr. Alon Tal — published just such a plan. “The Economics of Tomorrow” outlines ways to economically incentivize activities that help society, such as building affordable housing using environmentally sustainable construction methods — and ways to disincentivize activities that hurt society, such as pollution. If the Green Movement wins representation in the next Knesset elections, the Economics of Tomorrow could become a reality.
It’s clear that we still have a lot of work to do if we’re going to fulfill Herzl’s dream of a model state. The Zionist project has accomplished a lot so far, but our work is far from complete.