A Changing Country

June 24, 2015

4 min read

Ira Sharkansky

Minister of Culture Miri Regev and spokespeople of Israeli culture have been several days in the headlines, shouting at one another and past one another. Those claiming to speak for the better things are accusing the Minister of  censorship. The Minister is saying that writers, artists, playwrights, and actors can say and perform what they want, but that she will not allocate government money to activities that attack the legitimacy of Israel.

The commotion is interesting for its own sake, but also reflects basic changes in Israeli society.

Intellectuals demanding government money reflect an older side of Israel, i.e., a poor country where government was responsible for a wide range of public services. It was a socialist country, providing the conventional things as well as subsidies for bus rides, housing, medical care, orchestras, theaters, museums, and anything else whose supporters that could mount a political campaign in its behalf.

In the 40 years that I’ve lived here, the changes have been dramatic.

I recall a time when not many faculty members of the universities and no students had cars. Lots of families had no telephones. It could take five years between applying and getting a line.

Now, and for at least the past 20 years, there is a parking problem at the universities. The World Bank counts Israel among the richest of countries.

What this has produced is a tension between economic realities and expectations.

Israelis who want to support performances that challenge the dominant themes of public policy can pay for their desires with higher ticket prices.

But that doesn’t fit the expectations of the chattering class. If the government won’t support what they want to say, they call it censorship.

No surprise. It takes a while for cultural expectations to catch up with economic realities.

Also, there may not be enough support in the population for all that the critics who want to perform.

Israel is rich, but it hasn’t been rich enough long enough for generations of donors to provide the money to museums   and other sources of art to enjoy the fruits of independent endowments. There aren’t enough private investors willing to fund the range of projects created by the country’s film makers and playwrights.

Also, Israeli theater-goers aren’t used to the ticket prices charged by the Metropolitan Opera or the best of Broadway. One hundred shekels can buy a good seat in Tel Aviv. That’s about $25 compared to $300-$500 for the best in New York.

There are other tensions reflecting economic change, outside the realm of what bothers the country’s intellectuals.

The housing market is weighing on politics via demands that the government make it easier for young couples to acquire the kind of housing they want in desirable locales.

Israeli families expect to own their apartments, but prices have moved beyond what a young couple can finance, even with banks having the resources to offer larger mortgages than in the past.

Among the problems is an increase in expectations of housing quality. Young people want larger apartments than their parents acquired a generation ago. Moreover, the population has grown, and desirable locations close to the attractions of Tel Aviv are beyond the reach of most families.

The obvious solution of renting is chosen by more couples than in the past, with its benefits of greater flexibility when a better job becomes available in another town. But this clashes with expectations. The result is that politicians wrestle with the limitations of the economy to find a way that facilitates home ownership. Also in the game now are environmental activists, likely to argue against the allocation of land from green to housing.

For some time, Israeli activists in numerous fields have demanded improved services, using what is available in the wealthy countries of western Europe as their standards of comparison.

If all is fair in love, war and politics, that too is permissible. However, Israel’s economy is not at the level of the  countries held up as models of public service, i.e., Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia.

Moreover, Israel’s obligations for national defense dwarf those in the better places.

Yet this, too is changing.

Israel remains an outlier in the proportion of national resources allocated to defense, but not to the extent as in years past. Israel’s spending for defense as a percentage of GDP is still more than twice that of the US, three times that of Britain, and seven times that of Germany, but it’s down from about 20 percent to less than 8 percent of Israel’s national resources.

Israel no longer faces the prospect of a massive invasion by well disciplined armies from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. It is aligned with Egypt and Jordan, and less formally with other Arab governments. There are still serious worries associated with Iran, and always the prospect of terror attacks.

Fewer Israeli men spend time in the military reserves, and those who serve spend less time than was the norm in years past.

There is more money available for non-military activities, yet it is not clear that the population favors the large role of government that was once expected.

Individual initiative, free enterprise, and low taxes are in Jewish traditions, in competition with  social welfare, and they have been part of Bibi Netanyahu’s platform since he gained a role in national leadership.

There is no neat, quiet, and universally agreed way for Israelis to deal with their expectations, resources, and constraints. Finding accommodation is a matter of political dispute and decision, with unbridled criticism of decisions by those who want something else, or more for their favored purposes.

Argument is also something the Jews have been doing since the get go.

Schnorers still prowl the neighborhoods of Israel and lists of Jewish donors overseas. They want money for poor brides, yeshivot, extra goodies for IDF soldiers, and the whole range of Israel’s secular institutions. Donations help the hospitals, universities, and other worthy bodies always wanting more, but are not as vital as in the days when Israel was poor and surrounded by hostile armies waiting to pounce.

So we see that the shouting between Miri Regev and prominent intellectuals is part of quarreling about public money, made sharper by a dissonance between established norms and new realities brought about by economic changes not fully absorbed by the population.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post

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