The republic of Tel Aviv v. the other Israel: Kulturkampf or class warfare?

A standard portrayal of Israel today – especially from educated, well off secularists – is one of a cultural battle between forward-looking Tel Aviv and the sundry backward forces elsewhere in the land. Tel Aviv, in this description, is the secular Hebrew city that the most liberal of Zionists wanted to build; the rest of the country is haunted by primal faith and tribal loyalties. (Alternatively, Tel Aviv is the land of debased Israelis; Jews loyal to tradition live elsewhere.) In 1996, after the Rabin assassination and Netanyahu’s victory, there were a spate of suggestions in the punditsphere to divide the country into Israel and Judea, an idea revived after the Gaza pullout.

I’ve never liked that neat division between secular and religious identities – it doesn’t fit me, and it doesn’t fit most people I know. Would I have to live on the border of Israel and Judea, with a bookshelf on one side of the house for Kant and Sophocles and a shelf on the other side for Talmud?

But a conversation I had today with Shlomo Swirski, the academic director of the Adva Center for social research in Tel Aviv, gave me a very different view of the geographic split. I called Swirski for some details on how economic inequality has increased along with the Israel’s GDP. Swirski told me that in the 1980s Israel’s Gini coefficient – a measure of inequality – was around .31 or .32 – a low, social democratic figure. Today it’s .38, a major leap toward social division (though it’s far below the most recent US figure of .45). Swirski also referred me to an Adva report in Hebrew, showing that the top ten percent of Israeli households has benefitted mightily from the country’s growth since 1990 – while the income of the lower and middle classes has hardly changed. No trickle down at all.

Essentially, Israel is two countries. One has an economy based on high-tech and the financial sector, Swirski explained, and it’s flourishing. The rest of the country is stagnating. Those working in high-tech and financial services, of course, have more years of education.

But he added one more point: In economics, there really is a geographic division. High-tech and finance are concentrated in the center of the country. He didn’t say “Tel Aviv” but that’s what “the center” means. Even if there are some software firms up here on the hill, most are down on the coast, and that’s where finance is. The rest of the economy is wilting. Since Reaganomics replaced social democracy as official policy in the 1980s – partly due to direct US “advice,” partly due to cultural influence – the government has stopped doing anything substantial to promote job creation in the outlying areas.

So Tel Aviv belongs to the post-industrial global economy, and the rest of Israel doesn’t – in large part because the Tel Aviv financial class has accepted McMarket economics. (That is, the government doesn’t intervene to help textile factories. Intervening to save banks is OK.)

I am the last to suggest the simplistic view that people turn to religion only because they are poor or lack education. But the particular form of faith – and of ethnic identification – that they profess can be affected by whether they feel that they’ve been included in the economic well-being of their country and the world, or feel fury at being left out.

If the denizens of the secular Hebrew city want a more tolerant Israel, perhaps they should abandon the teachings of the University of Chicago and support economic policies that would share the wealth. Lighten up on secular rhetoric and try social democracy. It will get you further.

6 thoughts on “The republic of Tel Aviv v. the other Israel: Kulturkampf or class warfare?”

  1. Nice piece, Gershom. You really made a good point about the hypocrisy of the ruling clique’s economic policy when they claim they support “free markets” which to their mind means letting a textile firm in a development town close up due to bankruptcy, but they bail out banks and other firms connected to the “18 Families” who control the majority of the wealth and property in the country and other well-connected groups.

    It has been pointed out that Israel today economically is similar to the United States at the end of the 19’th century, the so-called “Gilded Age”. The economy was dominated by “trusts”, cartels and monopolies which ripped off the average person and their massive economic power gave them the power to control the political system, particularly in the United State Senate, which then was generally not directly elected by the people, but rather by the State Legislatures.
    Thus, paying off a few well-placed politicians protected the interests of these corrupt groups.
    Finally, a demand for reform got so strong that it couldn’t be stopped so there were improvements like the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the constitutional amendment providing direct election of the Senate by the people, the Pure Food and Drug act, the preservation of the environment and other such necessary reforms.
    Israel’s economy and population is being strangled by these same forces. However, there is one factor working to preserve the priviledges of the ruling clique that didn’t exist in the US at the time…the on-going security crisis and the never ending “peace process”. Politicians are able to use these to divert public attention from the economic sickness you described. In France, when the gov’t increased the tax on diesel fuel for truckers a few years ago, they paralyzed the country with a strike. Such a thing in Israel is unthinkable. The funny thing is that the Arab regimes use the conflict with Israel in the same way…it diverts attention away from demands for governmental accountability and democratization.
    The question is “what will it take to get the people of Israel to wake up and demand the necessary reforms”?

  2. I think Y. Ben-David has hit the nail on the head. Anyone who hasn’t seen Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary series The Power of Nightmares. This W.O.T. scam is proving to be remarkably convenient for a political class that is bankrupt of ideas but badly needs a distraction for the plebs while plutocratic cronies get on with concentrating wealth. Of course the raison d’etre for the Chicago school was to reverse the post-war consensus on the value of redistributive policies, policies that help promote social cohesion.

  3. I think you need to go much further in explicating the spaghettifying influence of neoliberal capitalism on Israeli society. Admittedly as an outsider, I see a cadre of putinesque ruling elites, whose cynicism about the 90% of the country that does not join the archipelago of capital is matched only by their sympathy for their brothers abroad, the lovely hedge fund managers and other metaphorically challenged neo-fascists. All this is subsumed under the rubric of bringing Israel into some sort of mainstream, which is supposed to be accomplished by gutting social services and the university sector, while empowering the kollelim to absorb more and more of the munificently funded messianic fervor of the Haredi death cult. In any case, perhaps they are hoping that Rabbi Elyashiv and his buddies will eventually take over the state, leaving the elites with the bank account and the exclusive rights to the domain name and trading terminals. In all seriousness, geographic definitions that you are peddling approach uselessness in a situation where a good percentage of the country is completely virtual, where Tel Aviv is a simulacrum meant to represent a certain number on a screen.

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