IsraHell’s Miracle Economy


I saw Dan Senor speak last year at Cornell when he was on book tour for his well-timed  intervention about Israel’s miracle economy. Jewish groups on campus which I didn’t even know existed popped out to paste their names onto posters as sponsors of his talk. Senor was a spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and an adviser to the Bush II administration, and so almost certainly culpable for war crimes, but for the organized campus organs of American Jewry, mobilizing Jewish identity behind state aggression and the murder of millions is nearly reflexive.

Be that as it may, one student at the talk, after hearing Senor pontificate about the smoothly-oiled machine that is the Israeli economy, and taking in his allusions to the high-tech economy as an off-shoot of the defense-industrial base, asked an unusually perceptive question: “would true peace be bad for the Israeli economy?” Senor fumbled and fidgeted, offered some patently dishonest figure about defense spending only being five percent of Israeli GDP, and then said: “Of course they want peace. It’s so hard though!”

For sure.

Eyal Press reviews four books on the Israeli economy and Israeli Palestinians in a recent NYRB piece, a reaction to the #J14 protests which recently convulsed Israeli society. Press politely demolishes Senor’s ridiculous tract, writing that “a miracle is not how most Israelis would describe what has happened to their economy in recent years,” and juxtaposing Israeli unemployment and economic dysfunction against the unemployment rate in Gaza: 45 percent. Pretty good, and better still when Press writes of the reluctance of the Labor Party parastate institutions to accept the Mizrahi immigrants into their channels for Israeli social advancement – although better yet would have been mention of the racist disgust the European Jews harbored against the Arab Jewish immigrants from the outset, as leaders like Ben-Gurion fretted about the “Levantization” of Israeli society.

Press goes on to write of anger at the families who have sequestered for themselves much of the fruit of Israeli settler-colonialism, making Israel the country with the highest poverty rate in the OECD. And then the lack of anger at Israeli-settler-colonialism itself: “The leaders of the movement calling for “social justice” did not draw attention to the daily injustices taking place across the Green Line, in part to avoid alienating potential supporters on the Israeli center and right.”

He goes on to discuss Shir Hever’s fine study of the political economy of the occupation, which I will be reviewing elsewhere, and goes on to conclude, after noting the 100 billion dollars that Israel spent in the occupied territories between 1970 and 2008, that “Were expenditures on settlements more explicitly recognized, the protesters who took to the streets this summer could potentially achieve something the left has failed to do: convince mainstream Israelis that the occupation is unsustainable,” something which strikes me as untrue, given the way that the benefits from the settlements, which include material benefits such as subsidized settlement housing are differentially distributed over Israeli ethnic groups: large numbers of Mizrahi live in settlements and serve in the army, while support for the occupation and Israeli militarism enables them to prove their “Israeliness” in a society which never wanted them in the first place and in which one competes for symbolic capital through hatred of the Arab.

As Smadar Lavie writes, “The left almost always chants the slogan, ‘Fund the ‘hoods, not the settlements,’ in the context of the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza without acknowledging the fact that the Mizrahim are the silent majority of the West Bank and Gaza settlements.”

Furthermore, the occupation also provides a built-in excuse for the militarization off which the elite directly or indirectly feeds, while also hardening the nationalism which holds together Israeli society from bottom-to-top by maintaining the specter of the Arab threat. Press overstates the ease with which protesters could have raised the occupation by focusing on its costs rather than the benefits it provides in various ways to varied social groups within Israel.

Press also writes of Israeli Palestinian participation in the tent protest movement, managing to capture the nuance and truth of that participation with considerably more grace than the dishonest, opportunist, pandering polemics some saw fit to provide:

No group in Israel stood to benefit more from the emergence of a movement dedicated to social justice. But the Israeli Arabs had good reason to wonder whether the vision guiding the protesters this summer included them, which is why some hesitated to participate. “Many say we shouldn’t join this struggle because it’s the Israeli middle class and we’re not part of the Israeli middle class,” Shahin Nasser told me. A journalist from an Arab neighborhood of Haifa called Wadi Nisnas, Nasser was among the founders of a tent encampment established in the community despite such misgivings. He saw the protests as “an opportunity to raise our voices,” he told me when I visited one night, which is why he’d been paying visits to encampments in Haifa’s Jewish neighborhoods. “I want them to know what it’s like for Arabs here.” I asked him if he thought people were listening. “Yes,” he said, “they are very open.”

The openness was not always on display. At a tent on Rothschild Boulevard one night, I heard a man denounce some Muslim women from neighboring Jaffa who had been invited to talk about the problems in their community (the man, who spoke in Arabic, was an Iraqi Jew). One of the women later told me she’d walked the length of Rothschild Boulevard shortly after the protests began, and come away feeling that there was no place for her there. Yet by mid-August, it was no longer unusual to hear of an Arab speaker talking of injustice at a demonstration and receiving a rousing ovation from a predominantly Jewish crowd. At one protest, poor Arabs from the Jaffa neighborhood of Ajami marched together with poor Jews from a traditionally pro-Likud neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, something few could have imagined back in June.

Press writes elsewhere of moves to the center amongst working-class Mizrahi, traditional supporters of the right, and the meager offerings of the Trajtenberg Commission: an 8 billion dollar spending package and some shifts in tax rates. One can hope that this will not be enough to buy off the protesters. Last week, a friend tells me 100,000 gathered in squares across the country. But for the moment the mobilization has stalled.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has re-charged with militaristic energy an atmosphere already crackling with the static of war: first, punishing the PA for pushing the Palestinian membership in UNESCO by delaying transfers of funds and acceleration the construction of 2000 housing units, thereby hoping to placate the right and secure his coalition by shoring up his support amongst the Mizrahi voters, a support that had been buckling under the intense social pressure generated by the Israeli protests wave, second, pushing talk of war with Iran, and third, lashing out at Gaza in the recent round of murders.

As Yacov Ben Efrat writes,

While taking pity on the Jewish population and understanding the dire straits of the Jewish middle class, it is cruel, hardhearted and racist towards the Arab population. This is a Knesset which seeks peace at home while undermining the foundations of peace abroad. This is a Knesset which the protest leaders have decided to lobby and “supervise,” showing their faith in its parties, no matter how right-wing they are, as long as they adopt a social agenda.

The question is where now. Ben Efrat argues that “a real protest must raise the peace flag as well as the social flag.” If that occurs, it will not occur because the protesters suddenly “realize” that they are being racist and that the occupation is wrong, but because they see it in their interest to do so. As indeed they should. The question is if they will.


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