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Op-edThe gulf between haves and have-nots threatens our cohesion

The perils of our increasingly unequal Israel

Undervaluing our teachers is not only deplorably shortsighted. It’s also emblematic of an economy dangerously dividing into an often callous elite and a demotivated majority

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israeli teachers demonstrate for better pay and conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. The placard roughly translates as "Our sense of mission shouldn't mean lousy conditions" (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israeli teachers demonstrate for better pay and conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. The placard roughly translates as "Our sense of mission shouldn't mean lousy conditions" (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

A month before the start of the new school year, Israel is short 5,600 teachers. The figure was announced by the Education Ministry on Sunday like a bolt from the blue, but the crisis didn’t emerge overnight.

Classrooms have long been overcrowded — significantly above the OECD average. Salaries are poor — well below the OECD average — with national strike action looming as the Treasury resists union demands to raise monthly pay to some NIS 10,000 (barely $3,000) for new teachers. Veterans are leaving the profession; fewer students are training to join it.

But the staffing crisis in education is also emblematic of a fundamental problem in the economy, which can be summed up as widening inequality. It is not unique to Israel, but it is especially dangerous to Israel.

The land of kibbutzim and Jaffa oranges has long since transitioned to high-tech, and thank goodness for that. We could not have progressed, and might not have survived, without it. Israeli creativity and tenacity generated first a start-up nation and then a scaled-up nation, attracting colossal sums of overseas investment and widely vindicating that financial faith with a seemingly endless succession of viable businesses based on breakthroughs and advances from the trivial to the life-saving. Despite the global economic slowdown, Israeli tech attracted $10 billion in new investment in the first half of 2022; led by the tech sector, Israeli exports are this year heading to a record $165 billion.

But while those who work in tech broadly thrive — albeit not always and not everywhere; recent weeks have seen a reported 3,000 people in the industry lose their jobs — many, indeed most, others are being financially left behind. The average salary in Israel is some NIS 12,000 (about $3,500). The average salary in tech, which employs a little over a tenth of the Israeli workforce, is more than twice as high, at some NIS 27,000 (about $7,900).

Heads of Israeli-founded cybersecurity firm SentinelOne ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, June 30, 2021, in celebration of its initial public offering. (NYSE)

Buying a home in many parts of the country has long since climbed beyond the means of any Israeli hoping to finance the purchase on an ordinary salary. Rather than overhaul the dysfunctional process by which land is made available for building, and ensuring areas more distant from the center are accessible and attractive, the government has lately resorted to the absurd practice of holding lotteries via which crudely and unfairly defined groups of eligible Israelis are required to compete for the possibility of acquiring a slightly less outrageously expensive home in an area they may have no particular desire to live in.

Now, rental prices have also hit the stratosphere — as the haves invest in endlessly rising real estate and exploit the have-nots.

Israelis set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, to protest against soaring housing prices in Israel and social inequalities, on October 2, 2021. The sign in yellow roughly translates as: “You shouldn’t have to be a millionaire to buy a home.” (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Everywhere you look, the cost of living is rising, and unscrupulous elites are exploiting the more vulnerable. Bread prices are going up. Monopolistic food importers are raising prices, claiming they are powerless to resist global inflation while paying their shareholders huge dividends, prompting the head of the Histradut trade union federation on Tuesday to urge a consumer boycott. Electricity is about to soar. Gas prices — double what furious Americans are paying at the pump — are frankly insane.

Which brings us back to our teachers — and nurses, and social workers, and many others in vital service professions — whose skills and sense of mission, by any sensible barometer, ought to be more properly rewarded. Along with workers in numerous other fields, they look across to high-tech today with a mixture of envy and despair. And, increasingly, they conclude that the only way to put a roof over their heads and afford their groceries is to give up the job they trained or intended to train for, and earn two or three times more in the tech field doing something they weren’t drawn to and don’t feel matters as much.

Further down the economic chain, for Israelis with fewer skills and fewer options, the financial strain is greater still — and the disconnect even wider.

We appear to be descending into an iteration of the spectacularly unequal societies the Hebrew University historian and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari writes about — dividing into an elite of “superhumans” and a vast mass of “useless” people left behind. And in the current transition — again, emphatically not limited to Israel — the rise of the “superhumans” is a function not only of any innate or fairly acquired quality or advantage, but of a socioeconomic framework that exacerbates rather than seeks to alleviate inequalities and disadvantages.

Israeli soldiers and volunteers pack boxes with food for families in need ahead of the holiday of Sukkot and Rosh Hashanah, organized by the Horowitz family in memory of their son Eylon who died during his military service, in Avney Eitan, Golan Heights, September 2, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

This, too, is nothing new, of course. Societies were always unjust; the few were born into wealth and power, and naturally did their manipulative best to retain their hold over the many.

Modern Israel was certainly not immune from this, even in that early era of kibbutzim and Jaffa oranges; just ask most every Sephardi immigrant. But our relatively less unequal nation was a key factor in our national cohesion. As many Israelis as possible needed to be integral to our national progress — we couldn’t afford vast gulfs between haves and have nots — because our very survival in this treacherous region required a healthy society with self-sufficient family units widely benefiting from our economic progress and thus able to contribute to our national resilience and our national defense.

In an Israel that subsequently embraced capitalism with too few constraints on its extreme unequal consequences, that broadly fair national economic framework has been breaking down — and so, too, by extension, our cohesion and resilience. Addressing this, with astute reforms, is an urgent government mission that requires stable, responsible leadership — a prime reason why our ongoing political dysfunction is so crippling.

A shortage of teachers directly imperils the future of our high-tech economy, for without the impressive recruits to the teaching profession that only reasonable salaries can attract, where are the extraordinary innovators of tomorrow going to acquire their basic skills today?

But those missing teachers also highlight the ongoing, still more fundamental gradual disintegration of at least reasonably equitable socioeconomic parameters in Israel — a country with near-miraculous achievements over three-quarters of a century that cannot be sustained by mega-successful, sometimes exploitative elites and an increasingly demotivated and financially challenged majority.

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