Analysis from Israel

Yesterday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the UN that the Palestinian situation is “unsustainable.” The day before, two ostensibly nonpartisan professional agencies provided data to back this claim – or at least they did if you ignore all the numbers in the World Bank and IMF reports and heed only the rhetoric. The World Bank, for instance, repeatedly used the word “unsustainable” to describe the PA economy. But the actual data paint a very different picture.

What first caught my eye was the poverty rate, which, according to the World Bank, stood at 16 percent in the West Bank last year. That drew my attention because it happens to be significantly lower than the official poverty rate in the West Bank’s wealthy next-door neighbor, Israel. Granted, this comparison is unfair, since Israel’s poverty rate (18.6 percent of families and 21.8 percent of individuals) is artificially inflated by a large community of the voluntarily impoverished; excluding the ultra-Orthodox, among whom the deliberate choice of full-time Torah study over work has produced an eye-popping poverty rate of 73 percent, the rate would be much lower. But it did prompt me to look at poverty levels in other countries, using the World Bank’s own handy chart. And it turns out the West Bank fares quite well by comparison.

EU members Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Estonia and Poland, for instance, all have higher poverty rates (22.4, 21.0, 19.5, 19.4, 18.6 and 17.3 percent, respectively). In Mexico, an OECD member, the poverty rate is a whopping 52.3 percent. In South America, even many relatively successful countries have higher poverty rates than the West Bank, like Colombia (30.6 percent) and Costa Rica (22.4 percent). And then there are the real global basket cases, like Haiti (58.5 percent), Congo (63.6 percent), Honduras (64.5 percent) or Zimbabwe (72.3 percent). Yet, somehow, you never hear world leaders declaring the situation in any of these countries “unsustainable.”

Or take GDP per capita. According to another handy World Bank chart, GDP per capita stands at $2,966 in the West Bank and Gaza combined; the figure for the West Bank alone would be higher, since it’s the economically stronger territory. This is obviously far below Western levels. But it’s almost double the figure for global powerhouse India ($1,596) and more than double the figure for Kenya, one of Africa’s strongest economies ($1,358). It edges out Vietnam ($2,052) and the Philippines ($2,871); it’s two to four times higher than numerous other African and Asian countries, including Bangladesh ($1,093), Ethiopia ($565), Nepal ($697), Pakistan ($1,334) and Rwanda ($696); and it’s eight to 10 times higher than the lowest earners, like Burundi ($286) and Central African Republic ($371). Yet somehow, you never hear world leaders declaring the situation in those countries “unsustainable.”

As for unemployment, the World Bank report put the West Bank jobless rate at 16 percent. That’s better than quite a few European countries were doing as of 2013, according to yet another World Bank chart; these include Macedonia, Greece, Spain, Croatia and Portugal (with rates of 29, 27.3, 26.6, 17.7 and 16.5 percent, respectively). It’s also markedly better than one of Africa’s strongest economies, South Africa (24.9 percent), not to mention poorer African countries like Swaziland or Lesotho (22.5 and 24.7 percent). Yet somehow, world leaders never declare those countries’ economies “unsustainable.”

I could keep going, but the point is clear: Far from being “unsustainable,” the West Bank’s economic situation is better than that of many countries worldwide. Indeed, it can be termed “unsustainable” only by the same illogic that drives so many world leaders to term the Israeli-Palestinian security situation “unsustainable” despite a death toll that’s downright minuscule compared to numerous other conflicts worldwide.

The economic situation in Hamas-run Gaza is admittedly much worse. Yet even there, the accepted wisdom that economic hardship will inevitably produce an explosion seems questionable.

After all, according to this accepted wisdom, last summer’s Hamas-Israel war erupted because of Israel’s “siege” on Gaza. But as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out last week, the one really besieging Gaza is Egypt, whose crackdown on cross-border smuggling tunnels, most recently by flooding them, has almost completely sealed the Gaza-Egypt border; in contrast, the Israeli border is Gaza’s lifeline, admitting up to 800 truckloads of goods every day. Yet in the two years since this tunnel crackdown began, Abu Toameh noted, Hamas hasn’t launched a single attack against Egypt.

In other words, Hamas chose to attack not the country that’s trying to strangle Gaza, but the one that’s keeping it from being strangled – which strongly suggests that its motive wasn’t Gaza’s economic distress, but rather its avowed desire to destroy Israel. And since that isn’t likely to change anytime soon, neither will the sustainability of Gaza’s economy: It won’t thrive, since Hamas’s hostility precludes lifting all Israeli restrictions, but neither will it die, because Israel will keep it on life support, just as it has throughout the eight years since Hamas seized power.

Thus the only thing truly unsustainable about the Palestinian situation is the overheated rhetoric of unsustainability – because as the World Bank’s own data shows, it simply doesn’t fit the facts.

Originally published in Commentary on October 1, 2015

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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