Benjamin Netanyahu has, for many years, argued that Israel’s economy is independent of politics. Seemingly, he has a point: the driving force behind Israel’s economy in the last two decades has been the high-tech industry - responsible for more than 16% of Israel’s GDP and 40% of its exports. The high-tech industry doesn’t depend on the Israeli market, and can therefore survive any political upheaval.
Netanyahu and Lieberman think that they can have their cake and eat it too: Netanyahu’s dream is to turn Israel into a Republican Hinterland like the American Bible Belt.
Lieberman’s dream is to become Israel’s Putin, and for Israel to become an autocratic state in which citizens meekly follow the commands of the supreme leader. And yet, they hope that Israel’s economy will continue to flourish even if they manage to shut down the irreverence and criticism that they can’t swallow.
Netanyahu, and Lieberman even more, hate the liberal state of mind. It drives them crazy, because, like most right-wingers, they need citizens to be obedient and uncritical; otherwise they cannot succeed with their fear mongering. This is why they have done everything they can to shut down criticism in a series of anti-democratic laws.
But their goal of maintaining Israel’s economy thriving while shutting down criticism is illusory: innovation strongly depends on liberal culture. This much has been proven conclusively by the research of Richard Florida, an economist specializing in urban economic policies. He showed that a new social group had evolved - the creative class - that drives innovative economies, and which cities and countries around the world are eager to attract.
This class has very distinct characteristics: it is highly mobile, because its main assets are the skills that its members literally carry in their heads. They disdain living in suburbia, and prefer pedestrian-friendly environments. They choose their habitat according to very specific criteria: they seek occupational opportunities, cultural density, culinary quality and diversity, and they require the vicinity of good gyms and good coffee.
This easily leads superficial observers like Netanyahu and Lieberman to the conclusion that the creative class is shallow, hedonistic and cares for nothing but its own interest.
Either they are called sushi-eaters by Netanyahu’s party members, or Lieberman complains that they don’t leave space for him in Tel Aviv’s restaurants – something that would never happen in the autocratic Israel of which he wants to be a Putinesque leader.
To the great surprise of Netanyahu and Lieberman, what brought Israel’s liberals to the streets is their developed social conscience. And yes: most of the protesters belong to the creative class. If Netanyahu and Lieberman had eyes to see or ears to hear, they would know that liberals across the free world care for social causes, across boundaries of ethnicity and religions - boundaries which they disdain.
The creative class’ central concern is liberty and justice. It hates to do as told by authoritarian leaders – otherwise it couldn’t be creative. It generally despises the games of the political establishment, particularly in Israel, where horse-trading has gone way beyond the acceptable. They prefer being productive to the useless arm-wrestling of the power-hungry, most of whom have done very little creative work in their lives.
Up until the current uprising, it looked as though Netanyahu, Lieberman & Co were on the way to succeed in turning Israel into an illiberal state. Because the supporters of true liberty in Israel descended into political apathy in the last years, primarily because there is no party that appeals to its sensitivities.
But Israel’s creative class has had enough. The nation-wide protest against a political system run by parasites that disenfranchises the productive classes is only gaining momentum. And for them, there is no conflict between the middle class and workers: they believe that only a society built on social justice can flourish.
Netanyahu is beginning to realize that Israel’s uprising must be listened to – if only to buy them off, which he thinks is possible. Lieberman, of course, can’t live with the uprising: because the type of state he wants, cannot accommodate a creative class.
Indeed, you can’t have a totalitarian state and a creative economy. China, a while ago, put innovation into its five-year plan; it invests huge sums in trying to import innovation from the West. But the Chinese economy continues to be driven by applying knowledge that has been created in the West, because you can’t command people to be creative. Russia’s economy is in tatters, kept afloat only because of its raw-materials (largely controlled by oligarchs associated with Putin): it hasn’t managed to make a single product that succeeds outside of Russia – at this point even the leading Premium Vodka is produced in France.
Neither China nor Russia is capable of developing creative economies, because such economies require a liberal, open-minded environment. You cannot command people to be creative: you can only give them the space and the cultural stimulation that nurtures their creativity. That’s what the Scandinavian countries are doing – and hence lead in the capacity for innovation; and that’s what characterizes the liberal U.S. East Coast and West Coast that Netanyahu hates, because they don’t buy his rhetorical flourishes, as opposed to his beloved middle-American Republicans.
Netanyahu will try everything to buy off the protesters with some concessions and otherwise leave things as they were. And Lieberman will do even more to destroy Israel’s liberals and the creative class, because he knows that liberty and creativity are the greatest enemy of the authoritarian state-of-mind on which his success depends.
Last Saturday, it was clear that Israel’s mature liberals are heeding the young leadership’s call for a new Israel. But we must not delude ourselves: This uprising is the fight for Israel’s liberal character. If we don’t win it, Israel may be lost.
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