Saturday, January 6, 2007

Israel is the gift of the compiler

"Egypt," wrote Herodotus, "is the gift of the Nile." The flood waters of the Nile renewed the top soil of the Nile valley and created an agricultural power house that was to feed the Roman Empire, as well as making Egypt one of the richest countries in antiquity.

In the early days of the state, Israel was the gift of the United Jewish Appeal and the printing press of the treasury.

For the first 35 or so years of Israel's existence, our main resources were sand, barchash flies and new immigrants. Add to this the Arab boycott, which was obeyed by numerous western firms. Add to this the demands of an outsized defense budget. Add to this our distance from European and American markets, and the expense of shipping heavy manufactured goods. Add to this a certain Israeli nonchalantness about "finish" in products, which ensured that a product with three holes for screws would usually have only two screws and one empty hole. Add to this periodic wars that scared off tourists.

Our main trading partners were countries that took pity on us. Our income came from subsidized agriculture, subsidized factories and subsidized subsidies. Our industrial products were things like automobiles that didn't quite work right, inedible candies, wine, oranges and diamonds. The candies could be exported abroad to be sold to Jews with strong digestive systems, who would give them as gifts to Jews with stronger digestive systems, who would smile and say "Thank You." If they were not yet acquainted with Israeli candy, they might try to eat them. Otherwise they would pass the gift on the next time they needed to bring a modest house gift to someone they didn't like too well.

This custom was observed in Israel as well, and is recorded in more than one story by the humorist Efraim Kishon. In Israel it was less widespread. While foreigners were sometimes unacquainted with the culinary properties of Israeli candies, Israelis were all too familiar with them. Israelis with weak digestive systems and poor judgement were eliminated by the benign and providential workings of the laws of natural selection. The rest adapted quickly. In consequence, all such gifts were passed on in Israel. As we are a small country, people would occasionally get back the same candy they had given as a gift to someone, many months or years before -- an embarrassing occasion for both parties.

Later it was discovered that we could also make brandy. Brandy is a much better gift than candies, because most people who consume alcohol seem to be able to get used to just about anything. I am not an expert on bad brandy, but ours was pretty bad. Your humble servant has a not immodest capacity for liquour. I have been properly inebriated on more than one occasion, thanks to sour mash whiskey, bourbon, beer, and scotch, and I can remember all of those times except one. Once I got drunk on a relatively modest quantity of Israeli brandy at an Independence day camp fire. I cannot remember anything much, but several friends would not speak to me for a long time. Israeli brandy is not meant to be drunk to excess. We are a sober people.

It could never pay to manufacture anything in quantity in Israel, because there was no market by international standards. Typically, a man who bought a machine that made lipstick tubes imagined that he would become a great industrialist. Instead, he found that if he ran this machine for one day a year, he could produce a year's supply of lipstick tubes for the entire consumption requirements of Israel. These could not be exported, as they could never compete with the tubes produced more cheaply by even bigger machines elsewhere, where raw materials were also available locally.

A socialist government oversaw a more or less equal division of the national debt. The shortages were divided among the peasants and clerks in an equitable fashion. Everyone was employed doing something, and had job security, even if what they produced had no value. Automobiles, refrigerators and similar items were luxuries for the very rich. A modern refrigerator was not just an appliance, but a decorative status symbol, to be polished and shown to admiring visitors. The opposition political parties blamed the poverty on socialist government policies, but in truth, the poverty was mostly due to lack of income, which is the source of most poverty.

An example of an Israeli industry was the detergent factory at a certain kibbutz. This detergent factory did not make any detergent. It imported detergent for say, $500 from Germany, paying the shipping of $50 or so. For another $400 it packaged the detergent, and for another $50 it shipped it back to Germany. It sold products costing $1,000 in total for $900, making a profit of $100. This was possible because the import dollar was exchanged at a different rate than the export dollar, and the difference was made up by a subsidy, which in turn was subsidized by printing money, which was subsidized by insufficient borrowing at relatively high interest and more printing of money. Our ministers of the treasury were depised by most of the citizens as agents of impoverishment and sources of draconian decrees. The truth is that they were financial wizards who made possible an economic perpetuum mobile. The Israeli economy of the early years ran on will power. It was the transposition, on a national scale, of what the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem had long ago characterized as the main occupation of Jews - Luftgescheft - air business. In the 1960s, experts calculated that Israel would certainly be bankrupt in ten years, as it would be unable to service its national debt. Nobody was worried though. Experts are always announcing things like that about Israel. In the 1930s, British experts proved that it would never be economical to irrigate the land using water pumped from the sea of Galilee, and therefore the land could only support perhaps a million more people in total. But Israel built the national water carrier anyhow, and it pumps more water in a day than was consumed in all of Palestine in the year 1948, and the population is many times greater than was dreamt of in the philosophy of those experts.

Nonetheless, it is hard to walk on water without getting your feet wet. The laws of economics cannot be suspended as Joshua suspended the Sun in Geba and the Moon in the valley of Ayalon. Printing money leads to devaluation of currency. Devaluations were announced without warning, after the banks were closed. Often they were announced in the late evening hours. A man could go to sleep a millionaire and wake up a pauper. It happened. In consequence, every private transaction, savings account, labor contract and rent contract became tied to the dollar. The artificial exchange rates produced a "black" market that was a national institution. The Jerusalem Post published the price of the black market dollar regularly, as well as the going rates for commercial ladies, for the benefit of tourists.

The socialist government was replaced by a free enterprise one in 1977. Soon after, the different dollar rates and economic controls were abolished and taxes on luxury items were lowered. The Likud was going to show the people the benefits of free enterprise. The result was 500% annual inflation, which was licked eventually by firing the minister of finance, a hapless fellow named Aridor, and instituting draconian controls. That didn't solve the basic economic problems of Israel.

Israel's economic problems were solved in large part by the hi-tech and software industries. Software does not have to be produced in quantity. The shipping costs are minimal. The value is in the idea. In 2006 Israel had a favorable balance of trade for the first time in history. Israeli currency, once the butt of jokes, appreciated by about 15% in relation to the dollar.

In large part, twenty first century Israel is the gift of the software compiler. But that is only part of the story.

Ami Isseroff

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  • loved your write up on the early years of the jewish dream. i found your site because i am interested in issues that deal with water.i am pro Israel. i run a google search "Israeli Water Supply" and thought your blog was going to start with the "stealing' of the water from the pallys. i run a greenhouse in the U.S. and use Israeli drip irrigation in my greenhouse house. it s nice to see that the jewish Dreams water supply can handle 6 million plus and that the national water carrier is one of the great wonders of the world. do you have anymore write up or suggested readings. regards,

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 7, 2007 at 4:35 PM  

  • Hi,
    As you did not leave an email address, I can only respond here.

    Israel's struggle with the water problem is continuous, and we have also been pioneers in irrigation technology as you pointed out. I know that a family friend pioneered the marketing of Israeli irrigation products and techniques in the USA. They have also been used in Africa.

    The professional magazine "Desalination" is run from Israel and includes articles about the topic from all over the world, especially the Middle East and North Africa.

    If you contact me by e-mail I will be glad to provide a bit more info about water & Israel.

    Ami Isseroff

    By Blogger News Service, At January 7, 2007 at 6:24 PM  

  • Ephraim Kishon was funnier. I see you like him too. Especially his story on getting rid of left-over matzot after the end of Pesach.
    But Kishon lived in those days and reported at first hand, and he was always kind to and about Israel, whatever the shortcomings.
    I'm disappointed by your tone. You're no Kishon, not even a Musrarah. Israel's candies were great, always. Israel produced some trashy brandy; for one or two lira more, you could also buy the best. And Israel produced some high-quality products for the house, for the road, for the kitchen and for industry--and sold them abroad at a profit. Please do not slander us, the pioneers of Israel.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 5, 2007 at 7:23 AM  

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