At a time when Israel is averaging several stabbing attacks or attempted attacks per day, it’s odd that a television show about the economy would capture the public imagination. But that is the feat of “Silver Platter” (Magash Hakesef) a three-part documentary series airing this week on Israel’s Channel 8 cable station.
“I’ve just watched two installments of ‘Silver Platter,’” lawyer Yuval Yoaz tweeted on Tuesday. “What a punch to the stomach, I have no words.”
“This may be the most important television show of the last decade,” high-tech entrepreneur Shai Wolkomir wrote in a public Facebook post. “Why? Maybe (just maybe) it has the power to awaken what has died inside of us.”
The documentary, conceived by journalist Amir Ben-David and TV director Doron Tsabari, is a devastating indictment of an economic system they say has grown so concentrated and extractive that Israel could soon rival countries like Rwanda and Namibia in its levels of corruption.
Each installment of the series follows a different outspoken critic of the behavior of Israel’s economic elites and their alleged cozy relationships with politicians. The first is Guy Rolnik, crusading editor of the financial daily The Marker. The second episode features Yaron Zelekha, Israel’s former accountant general who was ousted from his job in 2007 after accusing then-prime minister Ehud Olmert of corruption. The third and final episode, which is scheduled to air on Wednesday at 9 p.m., focuses on Daniel Gottwein, an economic historian at Haifa University.
All three are filmed lecturing to young people, and those clips are interspersed with animations, Michael Moore-style interviews with powerful people, and archival footage. The documentary’s overwhelming conclusion is that Israel’s future is threatened less by external enemies than by crony capitalism and runaway inequality that is destroying the social fabric from within.
Stealing the fruits of the economy
The series opens with images of an orange grove.
“Imagine the Israeli economy as an orange grove,” a voice relates. “The fruit belongs to all of us. But it needs a gardener — the government — that is responsible for cultivating it, distributing the fruit fairly, and ensuring there will still be fruit in years to come. But something in our orange grove has gone awry. Special interest groups have abused their power to eat more than their share of fruit, to uproot trees and even to take over entire sections of the grove.”
In the first episode of “Silver Platter,” Rolnik points out that about 20 individuals control most of the banking credit in Israel, and that just two banks, Leumi and Hapoalim, control 60% of that credit. Israel’s 20 top “tycoons,” as they are referred to in Israel, lend money to each other and often fail to provide credit to smaller businesses, ensuring that a broad swath of industries are controlled by monopolies or cartels. Among the tycoons he mentions are Shari Arison, Nochi Dankner, Yair Hamburger, and Yitzhak Tshuva.
In fact, says Rolnik, there are 69 monopolies in Israel with monopolistic or near-monopolistic control over about 125 sectors of the Israeli economy.
In the second episode of “Silver Platter,” Zelekha demonstrates how concentration works in the food market.
“Food in Israel is 20%-25% more expensive than Europe,” he tells an audience of students and other citizens. “Five companies — Tnuva, Strauss-Elite, Coca-Cola, Osem and Unilever Telma — account for 48% of all food sold in Israel. The other half of the market is divided among 1,008 small companies.”
At one point, Zelekha visits a supermarket and begins naming the companies behind every product on a shelf.
“Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola,” he says facing a wall of soft drinks.
Zelekha then turns to the other side of the aisle, where he spots a row of bottles of Fuze Tea. He takes one down and, lo and behold, it too is manufactured by Coca-Cola. Zelekha repeats the process in the milk aisle, where row after row of cartons bear the label Tnuva. When he spies a carton produced by Tara, Zelekha takes it off the shelf and reads the small print. “Coca-Cola!” he announces.
Zelekha informs his audience that Israel ranks 141st out of 148 countries in terms of the level of competition in consumer markets. The Jewish state, he says, is on a par with Serbia, Haiti, Chad and Mongolia, and actually trails behind the failed state of Libya in terms of competitiveness. When it comes to the government’s willingness to battle monopolies, Israel ranks 109th in the world, according to Zelekha.
But there’s more. Zelekha relates that Israel has fallen 20 spots in the last 13 years in global corruption rankings. In 2001, Israel was ranked in 16th place, on par with the United States. In 2002, it fell to 18th place. By 2005, Israel was in 28th place and by 2014 it fell to 37th. If this trend continues, Zelekha warns in the documentary, in another 13 years the country’s corruption level will rival Rwanda’s, Namibia’s and Angola’s.
‘A stunning response’
“Silver Platter” co-creator Amir Ben-David told The Times of Israel that reactions to the airing of the first episode have been “stunning.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like this. Hundreds of people have contacted me. People are arguing, discussing and telling their friends to watch it. We got a warm recommendation on the leading Haredi website B’Hadrei Haredim, while Meretz MK Zehava Galon said it should be obligatory viewing for every Israeli.”
According to Ben-David, Israel’s crony capitalist system was built up over the last 30-40 years while the population was distracted by existential fears about wars and security.
“In 1976 Israel was one of the most equal countries in the world, alongside Sweden. Today it is one of the most unequal, and we’re getting worse quickly.”
The problem, said Ben-David, is that most people don’t understand economics.
“Over the last few decades people chose who they will vote for based on their position on Jerusalem or negotiations with the Palestinians, but if you ask them what their representative thinks about taxation or the interest rate, they don’t know.”
He added, “Most people see economics as something that falls from the sky, like rain. It’s not. There are decisions, policies behind things like interest rates, inflation and whether apartment prices are going up or down. This is what we try to do in the series — to show that economics is not the weather, it consists of decisions by people and it’s possible make decisions that will serve the majority.”
Ben-David said the third episode, which airs Wednesday, will offer a historical analysis of how Israel went from being a highly egalitarian society to an unequal one in the space of just three decades, but he offers his own gloss.
“Israel is a country of extremes. The Second Intifada was a trauma that we haven’t totally recovered from. Most countries don’t experience situations where buses and coffee shops are being blown up for months and many hundreds of people are killed. Then there’s the evacuation of Gush Katif or the wars nearly every summer with missiles — first from the north and then from Gaza reaching Tel Aviv. As all this was happening, cynical politicians and capitalists used the opportunity to take advantage of people.”
He added that when people are feeling traumatized and scared for their children’s lives, they don’t notice laws being passed that transfer wealth from the majority of the population to the very rich.
“Look at what’s happening now — everyone is anxious over the stabbing attacks, justifiably so, and suddenly the prime minister wants to fast-track the natural gas deal,” he said, referring to a controversial plan whereby a single business group stands to exercise a de facto monopoly over natural gas reserves found off Israel’s coast.
“You might say, wait, why is this urgent? It’s because the government knows that people are in shock from all the terror attacks, so they’re not paying attention. It’s the classic strategy of pickpockets. They push someone, he falls down and doesn’t notice his wallet is being stolen.”
A way out?
Ben-David thinks the only way to reverse Israel’s trajectory is for the public to wake up and fight against concentrated economic power.
“We’re talking about a very small group of people who enjoy huge privileges. They won’t give them up just because someone says, ‘This isn’t fair.’”
His role model is US president Teddy Roosevelt, who at the turn of the 20th century stood up to robber barons, and broke up railroad and oil monopolies.
Unfortunately, said Ben-David, more often reforms only happen following some sort of calamity.
“I hope we don’t get to such extreme situations. After World War II, Europe saw how hunger in the 1930s led to Nazism and fascism, so they built welfare states with public housing and public health. But it only happened after the biggest catastrophe in history.”
Reception of “Silver Platter” on Facebook and Twitter has been mostly positive, although one critic, Rogel Alpher, wrote in Haaretz that the first episode had a conspiracy-theory quality to it.
“The creators of ‘Silver Platter’ gave Guy Rolnik a platform to present his theories (most of which are important and enlightening),” he wrote, “but were completely uncritical of him. They acted like acolytes or groupies. During most of the episode Rolnik stands in front a group of silent, nodding, impressionable students who don’t challenge his positions.”
Another critic, a Twitter user who goes by the handle @FakeEhudBarak, criticized the series’ apparent attempt to appeal to everyone. “We’ve already tried approaching the economy in a ‘nonpolitical’ way in this country and the result was [former finance minister] Yair Lapid.”
The overwhelming preponderance of reactions on Twitter, however, have been describing the series as a powerful wake-up call.
“‘Silver Platter’ is for the brave only,” tweeted parents’ rights activist Danny Harush. “Watching it leaves you only two options: to flee this place or to stay and fight with all your might against the people plundering the country.”