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.