God the Economist

By Joshua Berman
Monday, May 13, 2013

Israel has known huge demonstrations—usually surrounding geopolitical issues.  But the Occupy rallies of 2011 were the largest Israel has ever seen.  Elsewhere, Occupy movements lacked a certain coherence and have since petered out.  In Israel, by contrast, one particular sector spoke out about one specific issue, and that issue is today at the top of the country’s social agenda.  At the center of these demonstrations were men and women in their twenties and thirties protesting the skyrocketing prices of real estate and the inability of young couples to purchase apartments. 

Occupy Tel Aviv was a protest against a fundamental breach in the unwritten Israeli social contract.  For more than 60 years, young people in Israel had effectively been given an unstated but understood promise: if you finish your matriculation exams, spend three years honorably serving in the defense of your country, go on to complete a college degree, and marry a spouse who has done the same, you will be rewarded: you will have an apartment that is your very own, not because the government issues you one but because economic forces will enable you to obtain one.  You will take out a steep mortgage; to make the down payment you, your brother, and your long-lost uncle will all need to scrape it together; but you will marry and immediately purchase a home.  Put differently, the "Israeli social contract" proffered the hope to Israel's youth that if they did their part they would become owners and full shareholders in the Zionist enterprise.  To own a property in Israel is to have returned home in the most profound historical sense.  To rent is to continue as the wandering Jew. 

But over the last several years, real estate prices in Israel have skyrocketed.  A young couple that has "paid its dues" has little hope of being able to make the down payment on an apartment.  A couple that rents for many years does not develop equity in an owned home.  Within a generation, when not everyone can afford to purchase a home, a bifurcation is created between owners and renters.  Owners are full shareholders in the Zionist enterprise.  Renters are participants with only secondary status.  For many younger Israelis the high cost of real estate breeds resentment and alienation, because someone has suddenly changed the rules mid-game.  It is no wonder that some of the Occupy movement’s leaders are now newly elected Knesset members and that affordable housing is at the top of government's social agenda. 

I came to this understanding of Occupy Tel Aviv through my work on political thought in the Bible.  We think of the Torah as a religious document, but the Torah also provides us with history's first blueprint for a society dedicated to attenuating hierarchy and stratification.  To be sure, the Torah mentions multiple classes of individuals within the Israelite polity and prescribes an order that cannot be termed egalitarian in the full sense of the word.  It speaks of those with entitlements and privileges, such as the king, priests, and Levites.  Yet the control of society’s resources enjoyed by these groups was quite limited compared to the authority wielded by the rulers of the surrounding civilizations of the ancient Near East.  Most significant, the Torah rejects the divide between the class that imposes tribute, concentrating economic and political power in its hands, and an even larger class of those who pay the tribute.  Instead, it calls for a new social, political, and religious order founded on the idea of a society whose core is a single, uniformly empowered, homogeneous class.  

One of the primary areas in which this is seen involves the Torah's economic prescriptions.  In the ancient world, the commoner was in perpetual danger of slipping into economic distress.  Famine, war, or illness would quickly lead to a spiral of economic enslavement.  Loans at high interest required that a man sell his belongings, property, and even family, with little hope of ever again becoming self-sufficient. 

The Torah alters a number of economic practices and institutions that were known across the ancient Near East, but none of these innovations was as significant as its reform of land tenure.  In strictly economic terms, the apportioning of the land of Israel among its tribes and sub-clans meant that every Israelite family would be afforded a means of support.  The laws of the jubilee meant that even when a commoner fell on hard times and lost his land, the property would eventually revert to his family, allowing for a renewal of economic self-sufficiency.  The Torah's reform of land tenure, however, bears political wisdom as well.  The great Chicago sociologist Edward Shils noted that the more inegalitarian a society, the less likely it is that the masses, who inhabit the social periphery of that society, will intensely affirm the value system that has empowered those above them.  Shils points out that in contrast to more steeply hierarchical societies, the masses in the modern liberal society generally feel that the central value system of the society is their very own.  They have a strong sense of participation in its institutions of power. 

Shils' insight is everywhere evident in the Torah's vision of land tenure.  From an economic perspective, land tenure and the jubilee laws envisioned economic security for all Israelites.  But these reforms were as much political as they were economic.  They offered Israelites the chance to escape extreme marginalization as serfs and to share as central partners—as owners—in the new order and stand at its focus.  Put differently, these reforms gave the people a stake in what was being established in the hope that they would be capable of rising to the challenge. 

As I looked at the young couples in Tel Aviv protesting the inaccessibility of housing they could call their own, I thought of the land tenure reforms of Leviticus and the lessons of Edward Shils.  These couples were, no doubt, calling for an opportunity to build equity.  But more deeply they were clamoring to feel like part-owners of the country in which they lived and served.  Former Harvard president and U.S. treasury secretary Lawrence Summers once quipped, "No man has ever washed a car he has rented."  To be relegated to life-long rental is to be marginalized.  Not to own your own home is to be un-invested in the collective enterprise.  In line with authentic biblical teachings, land reform in Israel will ensure that its younger citizens remain invested in the country's future. 

 Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and Shalem College, Jerusalem.  He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, a National Jewish Book Award Finalist for Scholarship.

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