Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Peace, From the Inside Out

During the past two years In Israel, the phrase ‘social justice’ has taken on a certain connotation. As mirrored in the 2011 Tel Aviv (and associated state-wide) social justice protests, anger over the housing shortage, rising living costs and conscription exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews has reached unprecedented levels. Over an estimated 400,000 Israelis took to the streets in one of the largest demonstrations in the nation’s history. In addition, this past May the Bank of Israel released their 2012 annual report, which had a few sobering findings: income inequality is growing faster in Israel than in any other developed country, disparities in salaries between the educated and uneducated have widened, and the salaries of the educated have increased despite the increase in supply of educated workers. In addition to citing lack of government involvement as a chief cause of the inequities (among others), the Bank of Israel’s report illuminates the social cost of political impotence, but without it’s historical context or an explanation as to how things got to where they are today. Markedly, there is no signal for institutional reform, only general calls for government action.

And now, a year since the last social justice protests, and two months since the Bank’s annual report, demonstrators have reorganized and once again made their presence known across the country. What are the roots of these crises and inequities, and how do they affect Israel’s prospects for more equitable economic growth in the future? (Political economy and political geography perspectives are quite useful)

Housing shortages are a recurring theme in Israeli domestic dialogue. In the 1950s, in the midst of surges of Jews immigrating to the newly created country, the secular-Ashkenazi (Jews from Western and Central Europe) Labor movement members dominated the political arena and faced rising demand for housing and short supply. The Labor-led Knesset met the massive influx of migrants with the construction of development towns and moshavim (cooperative farms), to be largely populated by low-income Mizrahi (Middle Eastern, North African and Caucasian) Jews. In establishing these settlements, political elites created economically, culturally and geographically segregated communities at the periphery of Israeli life. Although the Mizrahim in these settlements sought work in nearby manufacturing plants and on farms, they were hit hard by an economic downturn in 1996 and subsequent high unemployment. Additionally, the economic woes inadvertently triggered a brain drain from the development towns, moshavim and kibbutzim (communal farms), furthering the educational disparities between Jewish Israeli political and economic centers and the poorer, peripheral communities.

Income inequality has become a growing concern in Israel since the adoption of neoliberal economic policies throughout the 1970s-1980s. During this time, the Ashkenazi middle-class constructed private gated communities, many in close proximity to developing towns and Mizrahi and Haredi communities. With them was the educational capacity, political favor of the government and economic opportunity to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). These settlements therefore diminish the economic potential of the poorer peripheries by attracting more FDI. Real wages dropped in Mizrahi development towns while disproportionate allocation of resources resulted in the consolidation of economic activity and power by the ethno-class (Ashkenazi) elites. Access to decent education, public facilities, and greater economic opportunity was therefore limited to the secular-Ashkenazim and the secular upper- and middle- ethno-class. As a result of the economic disparity between the distinct, mostly homogenous social and ethnic groups, the peripheral communities sought political representation in the Knesset. And as the Bank of Israel’s 2012 annual report implies, more wealth is still concentrated in the areas with ethnic and class connections to the political and economic elite.

By following their economic ambitions through shortsighted social and economic policies, the Ashkenazi and secular upper- and middle-classes have, in effect, constructed a state system that has led to social polarization and ethno-class stratification. This power structure has undoubtedly created resentment between the politically- and economically-connected and the peripheries. The Labor and leftist parties, largely comprised of Ashkenazi economic and secular elites, are perceived as oppressive to Haredi and Mizrahi Jews living in the poorer periphery communities. Their frustration stems from complaints that the neoliberal economic policies advanced by Labor movement members did not distribute the fruits of economic growth evenly. This in turn has led the peripheral groups to support right-wing, pro-market parties, even though, paradoxically, the rightist bloc will likely work against their interests.

Israel’s political economy through the early 1990 was such that resources and economic gains were unequally distributed and that minority groups were relegated to periphery communities cut off from opportunity. In the first three decades of Israel’s independence, the Israeli government sought a balance between territorial expansion and economic growth. Increasing economic growth, though, was predicated on further construction of legal and illegal settlements, and this economic strategy paled in comparison to Israel’s growth since the Madrid peace conference in 1991. Israeli political elites realized that the peace process could be profitable, and that the continued subjugation of the Palestinians was unsustainable given international pressures and stronger Palestinian political alignment. It was also a historical moment of opportunity, as the U.S.—a principal power in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—led coalition forces to victory in the Gulf War and sought to capitalize on these gains. In addition, East Asian markets were opening and the peace process helped boost Israeli trade. Reconciliation with the Palestinians, however, may be difficult given the political elite’s segregation and marginalization of minority groups that have found collective identity in their oppressed situations. These minority populations—mainly Haredi and Mizrahi Jews—could very well oppose any leftist reconciliation effort due to their residual alienation and subsequent alignment with the political right. In effect, the peripheralization of minority groups and resulting social polarization has and can hinder the peace process, which could be one of Israel’s only options for economic growth and equality.

The peace process, though, doesn’t just depend on Israel’s domestic situation: it is a confluence of separate but interconnected events. However, Israel would do well to take advantage of the housing crisis by building more non-discriminatory settlements closer to economic centers and encouraging FDI in the peripheral communities. Reexamining the institutionalized inequality between the secular elites/Ashkenazim and the minority populations is critical to understanding how and why the country is so divided today, and how these divisions could hinder future peace processes and economic growth. As stated before, the peace process involves a confluence of events, but it would be in Israel’s best interests to right the wrongs of its past so as to reposition itself for the prospects of reconciliation with the Palestinians and economic growth when the timing is right.

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