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What the High Priests of Social Darwinism Want

Benny Nuriely
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Israelis shop at a food market in Tel Aviv, April 2021.
Israelis shop at a food market in Tel Aviv, April 2021.Credit: REUTERS/Corinna Kern
Benny Nuriely

Try to imagine people who are trying on a daily basis to convince us that the government has to give the power and money to the wealthy, to deny workers the ability to exercise political influence and to deny the poor support in order to push them into the hands of employers. These mantras of hate are foreign to most of us, but in Israeli there is an active multi-armed octopus that is spreading them. The head of the octopus is the Kohelet Economic Forum.

The forum was established in 2012 by academics and political entrepreneurs from various fields. The main group bankrolling the organization is run by two Jewish billionaires from Pennsylvania, along with smaller donors, American Jewish businessmen, who want to promote a policy of support for the wealthy and of preventing Israeli citizens from participating in decisions on the distribution of resources.

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At present the Kohelet Economic Forum is headed by Michael Sarel, who worked intermittently in the Finance Ministry as a researcher and chief economist from 2001 to 2014. Sarel and his friends specialize in formulating hate mantras for workers and the poor. In a 2016 report on workers’ unions, Sarel, Amir Feder and Tzviya Zicherman wrote suggestions for sabotaging the right to strike while advancing lawsuits against employees.

Last month Sarel and Hodaya Lampert published an article proposing to lower unemployment payments and the minimum wage. Their objective is to create a kind of “race to the bottom” in wages, in order to strengthen employers at the expense of employees.

The ideological sources of Kohelet’s world view include the works of Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, who in their distorted way considered egoism and moral indifference to others desirable traits.

Hayek believed that the world is divided into predators and prey, and only the economically strong survive, Rand believed that rational behavior means the promotion of personal interests, and Friedman thought that the only thing of importance is the profit of the shareholders. One of his sources of inspiration was philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who in the 18th century proposed the establishment of the infamous panopticon [a structure that allows a guard to observe all occupants], a prison for poor people who would work for him. These are the high priests of social Darwinism, which is the basis for what is now called neoliberalism.

The social Darwinists demand a restriction of the citizens’ political influence. Hayek wanted to limit the power of the majority by means of laws preventing elected officials from strengthening the welfare state, or enabling experts on economics and law to prevent legislation that would force the rich to share their profits.

Dr. Michael Sarel, Head of Kohelet Economic Forum.Credit: Jonathan Bloom

Rand was opposed to any government intervention in the economic affairs of employers, including taxes; and Friedman suggested eliminating the corporate tax, assistance to the elderly in the context of Social Security, and supervision over the minimum wage and public housing. Friedman preferred a capitalist dictatorship to a democracy with a welfare state. The collaboration between Friedman and the murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973, after the military coup in which President Salvador Allende was murdered, is a good example of that.

In Israel the most effective tool for limiting the power of the citizens and their representatives in the Knesset is the Economic Arrangements Law: It is used to freeze social laws and to accelerate laws for the benefit of the rich. The Economic Arrangements Law has turned the Treasury’s Budget Division into the dominant player in Israel’s political economy, after the prime minister. The fact that Sarel was the Finance Ministry’s chief economist helps in understanding the depth of the intervention of social Darwinists in our lives.

An investigative report in Haaretz (“The U.S. billionaires secretly funding the right-wing effort to reshape Israel,” March 11) demonstrated how the Kohelet Forum stands behind the economic planning of Gideon Sa’ar, Nir Barkat, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Sharren Haskel and Zvi Hauser. They all propose limiting the welfare mechanisms and the power of the workers’ unions.

Kohelet director general Meir Rubin has a good relationship with Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who arrived from nowhere to the top echelons of Likud. Today Rubin serves as the secretary of the civilian coronavirus cabinet and even volunteered to serve as an adviser to Ohana. His recommendations, incidentally, included curtailing the right of protest and assembly during the coronavirus period.

It’s a known fact that political protest is a means of social pressure to distribute public resources equally. Protests against the murder of women are a means of pressure for allocating resources to protect women, and the protests of Arab citizens against violence in their streets are a lever to pressure for the allocation of resources and for taking steps to solve the problem. The creators of the ideological toxins at Kohelet are working with determination against the various types of protest by putting spokes in the wheels of legislation.

In many senses, the members of the Kohelet Forum are an instructive example of educated lobbyists, who are trying to reshape the political economy in Israel. Clearly they belong to a privileged minority that is trying to preserve the present situation and even to increase the gap between this minority and others. These distorted ideas are foreign to Israelis, and being vigilant on the alert in regard to them can help to solve our specific problems.

Dr. Nuriely is the academic director of the Arlozorov Forum to promote fair employment and social and economic welfare.

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