David Brooks: The Tel Aviv Cluster
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Back in November, I responded to a book review in the WSJ that began:

In "Start-Up Nation," Dan Senor and Saul Singer document Israel's economic dynamism—especially in the realm of advanced technology—and try to account for the country's extraordinary success.


Lemme think about this one. What could account for Israel's extraordinary economic dynamism in the realm of advanced technology ... hmmmhmmm ... No, I'm drawing a complete blank ... I guess I'll have to buy the book to find out what the answer could possibly be.

One advantage of David Brooks being a covert member of the Steveosphere is that it increases the sophistication of public discourse. Brooks doesn't want to get laughed at by me for being oblivious to the obvious, so, when he writes about Start-Up Nation in the NYT, he immediately goes there: Israel is full of Jews.

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

In his book, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement,” Steven L. Pease lists some of the explanations people have given for this record of achievement. The Jewish faith encourages a belief in progress and personal accountability. It is learning-based, not rite-based.

Most Jews gave up or were forced to give up farming in the Middle Ages; their descendants have been living off of their wits ever since. They have often migrated, with a migrant’s ambition and drive. They have congregated around global crossroads and have benefited from the creative tension endemic in such places.

No single explanation can account for the record of Jewish achievement.

Brooks is perfectly aware that he hasn't mentioned the higher average IQ among Ashkenazi Jews or the Cochran-Harpending theory of how it evolved. He's not going to mention that, but then he's not going to deny it either and risk getting roasted by the counter-intelligentsia whose views he respects in private (but not in public). So he puts in that last sentence that can be read as admitting to you and me that he's not giving the full story.

Duly noted.

The rest of the article is pretty good except Brooks, as a Zionist and a pro-capitalist, feels compelled to make hazy just how anti-capitalist Zionism was during its heroic age:

The odd thing is that Israel has not traditionally been strongest where the Jews in the Diaspora were strongest. Instead of research and commerce, Israelis were forced to devote their energies to fighting and politics.

"Forced" is not exactly the right word: the early Zionists chose to make their children farmers and soldiers out of a desire for Israel to be "a normal country," rather than one that lives on wits and chutzpah.

Brooks is putting forward a much more toned down version of his 2002Weekly Standard article arguing that European don't like Ariel Sharon's Israel because the Jewish State is "bourgeois" and Europeans suffer from "bourgeoisophobia."

I responded at the time:

I think, though, David is just using the word "bourgeois" here to mean "good," rather than what it actually means. Sharon, himself, would be offended by being called bourgeois. He sees himself as the embodiment of more ancient virtues: he entitled his autobiography Warrior, not Businessman. The entire Zionist project was distinctly antibourgeois. It was heroic, romantic, anti-capitalist, socialist, collectivist, risky, nationalist, militarist, agriculturalist, trade unionist, anti-individualist, ethnocentrist, feminist, myth-driven, and on and on. If the Zionists had wanted to be bourgeois, they could have made a lot more money by moving virtually anywhere else in the world, or even by buying Baja California from Mexico. The Zionists tried to de-bourgeoisify Jews by creating a national economy in which Jews would hold all the jobs, including farmer and soldier, rather than just the bourgeois middle-man-minority jobs at which they made much money, but also elicited dangerous resentment from other peoples.

From an ideological standpoint, it's more than a little strange that the mouthpieces of the American big business Right in America are so attached to this offshoot of the 19th Century European romantic nationalist Left. The neoconservatives should be complimented for rising above narrow doctrinaire prejudices to warmly embrace a country founded on principles they oppose. Ideological purity isn't everything.

I suspect Brooks doesn't want to get hammered like that again, so he's calmed down his argument a lot:

Milton Friedman used to joke that Israel disproved every Jewish stereotype. People used to think Jews were good cooks, good economic managers and bad soldiers; Israel proved them wrong.

But that has changed. Benjamin Netanyahu's economic reforms, the arrival of a million Russian immigrants and the stagnation of the peace process have produced a historic shift. The most resourceful Israelis are going into technology and commerce, not politics. This has had a desultory effect on the nation’s public life, but an invigorating one on its economy.

... As Dan Senor and Saul Singer write in “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” Israel now has a classic innovation cluster, a place where tech obsessives work in close proximity and feed off each other’s ideas....

But then he goes off track briefly into his old Zionist Capitalist dreamworld:

Israel’s technological success is the fruition of the Zionist dream. The country was not founded so stray settlers could sit among thousands of angry Palestinians in Hebron. It was founded so Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the world.

Uh, I strongly doubt that the Zionists founders had a pro-free trade globalist economic ideology. My understanding was that Israel was founded so that Jews could have their own nation-state and provide for themselves.

..But it’s more likely that Israel’s economic leap forward will widen the gap between it and its neighbors. All the countries in the region talk about encouraging innovation. Some oil-rich states spend billions trying to build science centers. But places like Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv are created by a confluence of cultural forces, not money. The surrounding nations do not have the tradition of free intellectual exchange and technical creativity.

For example, between 1980 and 2000, Egyptians registered 77 patents in the U.S. Saudis registered 171. Israelis registered 7,652. 

The tech boom also creates a new vulnerability. As Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has argued, these innovators are the most mobile people on earth. To destroy Israel’s economy, Iran doesn't actually have to lob a nuclear weapon into the country. It just has to foment enough instability so the entrepreneurs decide they had better move to Palo Alto, where many of them already have contacts and homes. American Jews used to keep a foothold in Israel in case things got bad here. Now Israelis keep a foothold in the U.S.

During a decade of grim foreboding, Israel has become an astonishing success story, but also a highly mobile one.

Of course, all the investment in delicate high tech labs and fabs in Tel Aviv suggests that Israelis themselves aren't talking all the scare talk about Iran dropping a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv as seriously as Israel's advocates in the U.S. are taking it.

An awareness of Zionist history raises a warning flag that Brooks doesn't notice: the anti-capitalist Zionist project of converting merchants and financiers into farmers was undertaken in part because of the belief that Jews were hated by peasants for being so good at capitalism. Therefore, we Jews will stop being capitalists and be farmers ourselves. Who doesn't like a farmer?

Unfortunately, this just got Jewish farmers (and Jewish soldiers) involved in an endless Malthusian struggle in the West Bank with Palestinian farmers over land. So, opinion among Jews has now turned 180 degrees: Everybody hates us because we're farmers and soldiers. Let's be capitalists instead. Who doesn't like a capitalist?
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