revised / final 1:56 pm
Ron Dermer is lit up. I don't know how else to explain it to you. There I was yesterday, completely bummed about the election, completely bummed about slightly-more-than-half-the-country not understanding the magnitude of the terrorist threat, completely bummed about the loss of Rumsfeld, the House and the Senate, the poorpalestinianization of the UN, Olmert getting tired again - apologizing and offering concessions, Nancy Pelosi breathtakingly close to the presidency, Dennis Kucinich in charge of Emerging Threats (and of course the Emerging Threats themselves), the anniversary of Kristallnacht, incessant attacks on Sderot and vicinity, the election of a Hezbollah judge in Michigan. . . I just wasn't having a good day at all.
And then along comes Ron Dermer -via a OneJerusalem bloggers' conference call. It was like someone turned the lights on. Suddenly there was light, energy, positivity, enthusiasm, brilliance, knowledge and understanding, and last but not least, ahavat Yisrael, love for Israel. If I knew anything at all about economics (Dermer is Israel's Minister of Economic Affairs in the U.S.), if I could so much as balance a checkbook, I would gladly volunteer to be his slave.
I should have expected brilliance, since Dermer is the co-author (with Natan Sharansky) of The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, but to tell you the truth, in my awe of Sharansky, the fact that there even was a co-author hardly registered.
Rick Richman, who couldn't be on the call, has already heard the tape and blogged it. If you don't listen to the entire audio, at least read Rick's comments and his transcription of Dermer's introductory remarks. The rest of us, who were actually on the call, are a bunch of slackers... hopefully because the scope of the discussion was so remarkable that it takes a while to process.
Until Dermer came along, I knew next to nothing about Israel's economy. I had heard people complaining about this or that program being cut under Netanyahu when he was Finance Minister in the Sharon government, but the significance of the "Netanyahu Revolution" had somehow escaped me. (Yeah, I knew about Warren Buffet, but only insofar as his investment in an Israeli firm was seeming to steal headlines from Jews in Hebron.)
Dermer explained that (and how and why) the Israeli economy "defied the laws of economic gravity," even during the summer's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Apparently both the Israeli currency and stock market were stronger at the war's end than at its beginning.
I really wanted to blog this good news, but in the back of my mind, I could just hear the Walt&Mearsheimers of the world: there go those evil Joooos, making money while the poorpalestinians and the poorlebanese suffer.
Well c'mon, you guys, come down from your Ivory Tower. I dare you to begrudge Israelis a free market economy and all the benefits thereof. I dare you to begrudge them the fiscal and monetary policies that are yielding some of the fastest rates of economic growth in the western industrialized world. Let me tell you something: If there were a Great Debate between Walt & Mearsheimer on the one hand and Dermer, Sharansky and Netanyahu on the other, I would bet my house on the Israelis.
Netanyahu's reforms cut both taxes (personal, corporate and VAT) and spending, something our now-lame-duck Congress might have done well to emulate. From what I can understand, these cuts, along with deregulation and privatization, combined to reduce Israeli unemployment and free up more of the enormous economic potential of Israel's best resource, her people. It's a testament to the success of this "revolution" that those who replaced Netanyahu - first Olmert and then Hirschson - have largely followed his lead.
As Dermer pointed out, Netanyahu's advocacy of privatization paid off big time in July when, in the middle of a war, the Ashdod Refinery was scooped up for a whopping $800 million. (The Haifa refinery is scheduled to be privatized next year.)
I would never have thought that I could be fascinated by anything economic, but Dermer's discussion linked dollars and cents - or rather, shekels - to Maimonides and the cause of social justice. Now I'm hooked. I've even added the homepage of the Ministry of Finance to my favorites, and I urge you to do the same.
Despite his focus on economic matters, Dermer's enthusiasm extends beyond his "day job," or even the book he co-authored (which btw, he thought should be titled Do You Really Believe in Freedom?). As an Israeli born and raised in America, Dermer could (and did) discuss both American and Israeli politics in the same sharp, articulate and engaging manner. I can't do him justice here, so please do listen to the OneJerusalem audio. I know you'll love hearing him go off on the world's lack of moral substance in its response to the summer attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas, when it was "a no-brainer to support Israel." About 35% did, but it should have been 85 or 95 percent.
Dermer admitted that the climate in Israel today is largely one of anger and apathy, but he himself is optimistic. Though Israel faces existential challenges (from "Iran, Iran and Iran") Dermer was enormously reassured by the convergence (pun intended) of Left, Right and Center Israelis in support of the war.
We have to remember that Israel is not a small Jewish version of America. While the U.S. has been attacked but once, Dermer pointed out that Israel lives on the front lines, and is not a superpower. I found it so interesting when he noted that the Israeli Left is not pacifist. I hadn't really understood that before, but it makes perfect sense. He illustrated with the image of Aviv Geffen in a bunker during the war.
Geffen, as you may know, is an Israeli rock star and self-described radical leftist (Dermer identified him for us as a "Cindy Sheehan.") A nephew of Moshe Dayan, Geffen performed at the 1995 peace rally where Rabin was assassinated AND for shelter-bound Israelis in the north this summer.
[Get it? The key word is AND.... Unlike the dichotomous Either/Or thinking so essential in the Greco-Roman tradition, Jewish -i.e. talmudic- thinking encompasses PARADOX, where both are true. This is a great example.]
Another way Israel differs from the U.S. is that Israelis are more patient, more worn down too perhaps, but patient because they must be. We Yanks are hugely impatient, as evidenced in the election. We want to get in there, get the job done and get out. Dermer mentioned that while he recognizes the limitations of our patience, he remains convinced of America's underlying resolve. Thankfully, it became "crystal clear" to him this summer that Israeli resolve is intact as well.
Being so young (he grew up in the Oslo era), Dermer feared the possibility of "deeper decay" underneath the enormous Israeli desire for peace, and had some doubts before the war as to whether or not Israelis were still willing to fight. Across the political spectrum, he says they are. And take a note: Dermer said that while Israel "didn't finish the job" in Lebanon, he doesn't doubt that the IDF will give the terrorists the thumpin' (btw, there's no "g" in that) they deserve... next time around.
One last thing, because I can never cover it all. Dermer pointed out many things that made us all think, which was what so electrified the whole conversation. The example I will leave you with is "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," to which he added, "in that order."
The order (in Hebrew, seder) is of the utmost importance. We have seen -in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority- what Dermer said to us, and what both he and Sharansky know - that elections in a fear society are not "free." Perhaps we did not fully comprehend that in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," life comes first. There can be no liberty without life, and happiness cannot be pursued until and unless life and liberty are both secured. That's why we have to insist that -and help- the good guys "de-toxify" their societies, but first, I think ... we have to fight the bad guys.
My heartfelt thanks to Ron Dermer for taking the time to talk to us. It lit up my otherwise-dark day to be in the (cyber)presence of someone who really believes in freedom.
(I hope I haven't confused anyone by muddling up what he said with what I think. I tried to make the distinction clear, but if you want to clarify, don't hesitate to use that audio at OneJerusalem.org as a resource.)