August 10, 2011
Rob Eshman: The seer
One evening last February, long before 300,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv to march for economic justice, I joined a handful of well-heeled Israelis and Americans for a private dinner. We ate in the upstairs dining room at Michael’s Santa Monica, just 10 of us around a table, listening with rapt attention to the guest of honor, Shraga Biran.
The Israeli press refers to Biran as the country’s wealthiest lawyer. He probably is. In the late 1980s and ’90s, as Israel privatized its economy, Biran invested in real estate developments and other businesses in Israel and abroad, including housing developments in Seattle and a chain of gas stations and supermarkets.
At dinner, over whitefish with spring vegetables and duck with Cabernet sauce, he traced his unlikely journey to multimillionaire. Biran, 79, was born in Poland in 1932. At age 10, he watched Nazis shoot his mother and father in the head. He escaped and lived by his wits, a “Painted Bird” kind of existence, until he landed in Israel after the war, joined a kibbutz and became an ardent communist.
An ideological struggle between Zionists and communists resulted in his expulsion.
“I wandered around,” he said. “I had no money.”
He somehow completed law school without a high school diploma and proceeded to find opportunity where he could. The communist became a multimillionaire.
Biran was in town promoting his new book, just released in English by the prestigious publisher Farrar Straus Giroux. The book, “Opportunism,” tries to polish off the negative connotations of a word that Biran maintains holds the key to social and economic revolution.
The book is a bit dense, but Biran, in conversation, was erudite, a great storyteller and a combative conversationalist. But mostly, he was prescient.
That dinner was off the record. But this week, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets to protest against social inequality and the lack of affordable housing, I’ve often thought of what Biran said. Between the dinner’s champagne start and cognac finish, the former communist laid out the unsustainable economic disparities behind the Israeli economic miracle. By way of example, here are some excerpts from an interview he gave to Haaretz in 2008, all predicting the protest:
“I would not want to paint a picture to the effect that the entire [Israeli] government is beholden to the rich,” he said, “But even neo-liberalism has changed its ways in recent years. Even the economic right wing in Europe and the U.S. now talk about the need to save the world from the terrible social disparities. They understand that the wealth must be distributed by expanding health services and improving education. But in Israel the concept is still one of antiquated neo-liberalism. There is no serious treatment of the problem of poverty. The government is not attentive to the wishes of 65 percent of the population. The connection between big business and government coarsens social sensitivity. The senior economic stratum lives in a bubble, and the government is there with them. I think that instead of the connection between government and big business, we need a symbiosis between government and poverty. Government and scarcity. Instead of attaching themselves to the elites, the politicians must attach themselves to the growing distress of two-thirds of the public.”
“Accordingly, a government of socio-
economic emergency must be established. People will not tolerate this situation indefinitely. They will not remain silent. Nor will the young middle class. Instead of establishing an inquiry commission after all this erupts, the problem of poverty must be tackled now.”
“The treasury officials espouse an antiquated neoliberal approach. I believe in the redistribution of the wealth that has not yet been distributed. What that means in practical terms is to take more taxes from the rich and use the money to create the human infrastructure that will make the economy grow and reduce social disparities. The treasury is not doing that. It is displaying social insensitivity and economic ignorance. It is blocking the ability of many to climb the social ladder.”
“Those who pay the taxes must realize that education, health and housing reforms are essential; it will be impossible to go on here without them. Raising taxes is not the only way to pay for the reforms, but it is one way. Some will leave — let them go to hell. It’s their right.”
To be honest, Biran’s words resonate a bit here as well. For all the positive attributes they have in common, Israel and America also have similarly high rates of income inequality, a political establishment beholden to moneyed interests and fast-growing numbers of working poor.
The next time I see Biran, I’ll be sure to ask not why economic protests have finally came to Israel, but why they haven’t yet come here.