Two clashing stories flashed across my screen this past week.
The first was the launch buzz surrounding the new book by my friend Saul Singer and his brother-in-law Don Senor, entitled "Start Up Nation ." Essentially tackling the question many have asked over the past twenty years -- how did those guys living in a desert, with no natural resources, cut off from their region, turn their country into an economic power house? Well, part of the answer is most certainly the high-tech wave of the past twenty years, which I have been privileged to ride in and benefit from, and still am immersed in today. The entrepreneurial "can-do" spirit of the country, and several other factors, have led to the success of the high-tech sector in Israel and the economy in general.
Second major news item is the fight of the Israeli farming community (here read mainly agri-business, not small farms, more on that below) to import more "foreign workers" from Thailand. The farming community is loose coalition of Kibbutzim (theoretically socialist leaning), Moshavim (diluted kibbutz) and some large private farmers. All of these are almost exclusively Jewish controlled. Most non-Jewish Arab (Muslim, Christian, Druze) farmers are small operations that do not import workers from abroad. What are the farmers demanding when they say "foreign workers?" Do they mean highly skilled labor that one cannot find in these parts? NO! They mean CHEAP LABOR, ready to work at wages far below Israeli minimum wage. In fact, so cheap it's worth flying them here, housing them, feeding them, etc., for years on end. Sounds like...yup, pretty close to slavery. Or at least indentured servitude. Certainly not very progressive. How did this happen, only a few short years after great waves of Israelis in the last century built up a major farming industry? Well, one is because there was a flight away from working the land to working the keyboard, or at least working in a room where there are keyboards...farming became seen as passe, low chance for upward social mobility. We drifted away from our roots as a modern society based on self-sustanaibility to one slammed by the wave of globalization. If the profitablity of the Israeli farming community is based on importing 5-10,000 Thai workers. we have an emergency situation on our hands. Agriculture here, like in many places, is a completely government and God controlled enterprise. God supplies some water, the land, and then lets government mess it up from there. Government decides the price of water, land use, and controls the price of some of the output of the agriculture (milk, bread, vegetables). Perhaps instead of importing workers from Thailand, we should be paying livable wages to Israeli citizens to work in agriculture. Maybe the "profit" would be less, but it's an artificial industry to begin with (OK, so I don't believe any market is truly "free," but this one is very far from free...).
Most Israelis today do not see the agricultural economy first hand, so they really don't think about where their vegetables and milk comes from -- I have started to pay a bit more attention now that I am a member of an agricutural community (and yes, have started to be be physically active, we are in the midst of our olive harvest, if you want to come help out, will get some oil for your labor...). When we brough our first wave of olives into one of the neighboring olive presses a few weeks ago, I looked around, and did not see a single Thai worker. There were families from Kfar Manda, keeping alive an agricultural tradition going back centuries. And us proud few from Hanaton, who picked our olives and will eat our olives (and olive oil), the way it should be. In freedom. Without any "foreign workers."