There’s a general assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be back on the front pages come September when a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood is scheduled. But in the meantime, there’s been a major outbreak of economic populism among Israel’s Jewish voters over the rising cost of living. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was rapturously received on Capitol Hill in May, has seen his domestic polls drop. He has admitted "a populist wave is sweeping the country". [Netanyahu: Housing protests are 'populist wave', By Ilan Lior and Gili Cohen, Haaretz.com,]
The protests have had conservative and liberal wings that have so far worked together more than they have collided. First, a cantor started a Facebook group to protest the near-doubling in the price of cottage cheese (a staple of Israeli breakfasts). Then, a video editor started an encampment on trendy Avenue Rothschild in Tel Aviv to protest the unaffordability of housing. Between them, the protests have proved hugely popular with the Israeli public.
The Israeli economy, unlike America’s and Europe’s, is booming, but prices are extremely high. Netanyahu, a skilled politician, has admitted that the demonstrators have a point: according to YNet’s Moran Azulay,
"He added that the cries on the street were real, as Israel is currently ranked number 40 in global individual income while ranking number 20 in cost of living." [PM: Populism sweeping through Israel, August 3, 2011]
The Israeli cost of living protests are responding to the same economic stresses caused by rising populations bashing up against limited resources that set off the celebrated "Arab Spring" demonstrations.
The high price of cottage cheese also has much to do with the Israeli economy being dominated by cartels, especially the descendants of old socialist kibbutzim. Their managers don’t see what’s so great about capitalist competition when collusion is much easier.
But the high price of housing (the typical residence in Tel Aviv now costs a half million dollars, similar to Los Angeles at the peak of the bubble) has even more fundamental supply and demand cause: Israel is a small territory with a rapidly growing population.
In the U.S., this kind of populist protest against profiteering was common in the 1970s, but is now frowned upon. To modern media Americans, any sort of populism now seems vaguely anti-Semitic.
Consider former television star Glenn Beck, of whom Jonah Goldberg opined (in a column defending Beck), "I confess, if Beck wasn't a libertarian, I would find his populism terrifying." [Glenn Beck's ecumenical moment LA Times, August 31, 2010]. You’ll notice that Beck isn’t employed at present by any of the hundreds of television channels in America. He was fired from Fox News for, as far as I can tell, terrifying too many media people by seeming like a potential loose cannon.
But the Jewish citizens of Israel don’t seem to worry much about appearing anti-Semitic.
Israel rewards occasional close study if you want to understand America better. It’s much like the U.S., but just enough is very different to provide informative test cases.
In many ways, America and Israel are becoming ever more symbiotically linked. For instance, Israeli mogul Haim Saban, chief owner of Spanish-language Univision, is perhaps the most influential power-broker in the American Democratic Party, while American mogul Sheldon Adelson is a deep-pocketed donor to both Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the American Republican Party.
Yet certain rules that define goodthinking in America are simply ignored in Israel.
For example, everybody Important in America knows that a border fence can’t work. It’s a law of nature, or something. Janet Napolitano announced in 2005, "You show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That's the way the border works". Perhaps for discovering this Nobel-worthy breakthrough in physics, President Obama made her Secretary of Homeland Security.
Yet, plagued by West Bank suicide bombers (who are, by definition, highly motivated), Ariel Sharon simply went ahead and built a border fence anyway. And it has worked well for over half a decade.
Similarly, population policy is close to unmentionable in the U.S., but it’s an open obsession among Israeli leaders.
For example, last year I gave a rave review to 2030: Alternative Futures for the Jewish People [5 megabyte PDF], an important book by the quasi-governmental Israeli center-left think tank, the Jewish People Policy Institute. Just as the Republican Party appears to be doomed demographically by immigration, it has been said for decades that Israel’s Jewish majority will inevitably lose the War of the Cradle to Arabs. In striking contrast to Republicans, however, the Jewish state has fought back and has, in recent years, significantly narrowed the fertility gap.
In the 1960s and 1970s, population control was a fashionable cause among wealthy WASPs, such as the Rockefellers and the Bushes. Nevertheless, after the non-Hispanic white fertility rate dropped below replacement, the Bush Dynasty lost interest in the topic. Mission Accomplished!
When George W. Bush reached a position of power, he promoted rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the U.S., even challenging foreigners at the third Presidential debate in 2004 to prove their manhood by illegally immigrating: "You're going to come here if you're worth your salt …"
Any concern about the difference in fertility rates between the majority and the minority has become unthinkable in America. After all, whattaya whattaya? As everybody in America has been informed repeatedly, nothing can be done about demographic change. It’s like global warming, only much less under human control. It’s more like continental drift.
But Israeli leaders beg to disagree. They see themselves as having numerous policy tools at their disposal—such as immigration policy, which they use to strengthen rather than undermine the majority.
The Founders famously designed the U.S. for "ourselves and our posterity". But it’s been a long time since the U.S. was run for the benefit of that "posterity" or, indeed, for native-born Americans in general.
In contrast, the state of Israel exists explicitly for the benefit of the Jewish majority. Therefore, the government of Israel encourages its majority population to try to outgrow its minorities. As Wikipedia’s article on Demographics of Israel explains:
"As Israel's continued existence as a ‘Jewish State’ relies upon maintenance of a Jewish demographic majority, Israeli demographers, politicians and bureaucrats have treated Jewish population growth promotion as a central question in their research and policymaking. Non-Jewish population growth and immigration is regarded as a threat to the Jewish demographic majority and to Israel's security, as detailed in the Koenig Memorandum."
For example, Ariel Sharon, as the minister of Construction and Housing from 1990-1992, encouraged a large influx from the decaying Soviet Union. Not everybody who came from Russia was a Jew by strict rabbinical standards of heredity. But Sharon’s view appeared to be that they weren’t Arabs—and once they got to know the Arabs, they’d probably hate them too. Which was good enough for Sharon.
Similarly, the Jewish state provides free in vitro fertilizations, making it "the world capital of in vitro fertilization". [Where Families Are Prized, Help Is Free, NY Times, July 17, 2011] The per capita IVF rate is 13 times higher in Israel than in the U.S.
Indigenous Arabs get free treatments, too. But Jews are more likely to delay motherhood, and thus tend to be more likely to use the Israeli government’s fertilization services.
It’s important to understand that these population policies aren’t terribly partisan or controversial among Jewish voters in Israel. The parties differ on details, but less on the big questions—above all, on the central goal of keeping the majority the majority.
For instance, the Jewish People Policy Institute was set up by the Labor Party, and has been headed by two American Democrat diplomats, Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstadt, both currently employed by the Obama Administration. It’s unimaginable that Ross or Eizenstadt would sign off on a similar document about the American People.
It’s also important to note that these myriad steps seem to be working.
The number of births to Muslim mothers in Israel stagnated between 2000 and 2010, growing only from 35,740 to 36,252. In contrast, the number of children born to Jewish mothers grew from 91,936 in 2000 to 120,673 in 2010, a growth rate of 31 percent.
The "total fertility rate" of Muslim women in Israel is said to have fallen from 4.57 per woman per lifetime in 2000 to 3.73 in 2010. In contrast, the TFR for Jews grew from 2.67 in 2000 to 2.96 in 2010. This is a very high figure for a fairly well-educated population, the highest in the world for any developed country. In comparison, the much-celebrated TFR among whites in predominantly Mormon Utah was 2.45 in 2002.
Some of this Jewish fertility is less useful to the state. The ultra-fertile ultra-Orthodox were long exempt from conscription and tend to absorb a lot of welfare to pay for all those Jewish children. On the other hand, Asian Times pundit Spengler (who is former Lyndon Larouche aide David P. Goldman), claims that mainstreams Jews in Israel average a healthy 2.6 children each.
Indeed, Goldman indulges in some triumphalism due to the converging fertility rates in his recent column Israel as Middle Eastern hegemon: "… if present trends continue, Israel will be able to field the largest land army in the Middle East." [May 24, 2011]
Yet there’s a downside to Israel’s rapidly growing population that Goldman doesn’t dwell on—one that is helping drive these cost-of-living protests in Israel: all else being equal, a growing population drives up the cost of land.
As real estate agents tell you about land, they’re not making any more of it. Except in Israel, where they’ve been trying. Since its conquest of the West Bank in the 1967, the Israeli government has been more or less attempting to turn the West Bank into exurbs for Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa.
This, of course, has proven vastly controversial internationally. It’s also been expensive for Israel to subsidize settlers and provide security from the Arabs. One unstated premise of protest by young urbanites in Tel Aviv is that they want the government to spend more on them, and less on the exurban settlers and the ultra-Orthodox.
I won’t try to resolve the West Bank controversy. I must confess that I have an eccentric perspective on Israel. Although most everybody else in the world seems to have a passionate view on the country, I tend to be more bemused by how much the place physically looks like my native Los Angeles County. I try to learn lessons from Israel that are relevant to California.
The Economist’s City Guide calls Tel Aviv "a miniature Los Angeles". But Tel Aviv, whose metropolitan area now numbers 3.3 million, isn’t so miniature anymore. It does, however, lack the vast exurban hinterlands that Los Angeles possesses, because Tel Aviv is situated on the coast at the narrowest part of Israel proper, where the contested West Bank cuts into the outline of Israel.
L.A. has long been known as one of the world’s most extensive urban sprawls. In contrast, what’s now Israel was once advertised as "a land without a people for a people without a land". But Israel is increasingly coming to resemble L.A. County in terms of urbanization. Daniel Orenstein of Brown University claims that Israel is now the second-most densely populated developed country in the world.
Israel is about twice the size of Los Angeles County, with a similar combination of sunny, mild Mediterranean climate along the coast and hot desert inland.
Back in 1989, Israel was much less populated than L.A. County, with only 4.5 million people compared to L.A. County’s 8.8 million. Today, Israel is up to 7.8 million, compared to L.A. County’s 9.8 million.
Los Angeles is still an entrepôt for immigrants, but it constantly sheds natives into the hinterlands of the Inland Empire, Nevada, and Arizona (all Ground Zero locations of the housing bubble and bust).
Why? Because Los Angeles County is fairly full. It is now an expensive place to build homes and infrastructure. The crowding means that competing interests constantly infringe on each other, which makes for slow construction projects. For example, the TPC Valencia golf course and housing development in exurban Santa Clarita took from 1986 to 2003 to open due to environmental regulations and lawsuits.
What we’ve seen in California over the last century is that development is uncontroversial when population density is low and increased building will bring amenities like electricity, paved roads, sewer hook-ups, and grocery stores. Eventually, however, a tipping point is surpassed, when more population density is increasingly seen as merely threatening more traffic, more noise, and other undesirable side effects. Then arguments over further land development become protracted, due to the huge number of stakeholders now affected.
Netanyahu has promised to cut red tape to speed up construction of new residences. But it’s not at all clear that this will happen.
Perhaps Netanyahu is an expert enough politician to resolve these inherent conflicts. Or perhaps something else will come along to distract Israeli voters. (In that part of the world, something else usually does come along.)
In summary, though, the two-word lesson that leaps out from the ongoing history of Israel: Population Matters!
It’s a lesson that is essentially ignored in contemporary America.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]