Wealth, Government and Sanity

The original sin lies in privatization: A small group of families - including the Ofers - has assumed too much economic and political power in Israel.

Here's the story. On Thursday, July 16, 2009, someone contacted me and invited me to meet Palestinian businessmen in the home of Idan Ofer. I had never been to Ofer's house. I didn't even know where he lived. There are no social, personal or business ties of any sort between me and Idan Ofer.

On Saturday, July 18, 2009, at 3 P.M., I arrived at Ofer's home in Arsuf. Lunch had just ended, and the family, friends and Palestinians I had come to meet were sitting around the table. I spoke to the Palestinians at length and learned quite a lot from them. As a direct result of this conversation, I traveled a few days later to the West Bank and wrote an article about what is happening in the territories.

Thanks to the meeting in Arsuf I was able to do my job and report to Haaretz's readers on a situation I thought was the right thing for me to report on.

Ten days later I took part in a discussion on Channel 1. The discussion was held after a screening of the film "The Shakshuka System," but had been clearly described as a debate that would not touch on the film or the issue of the Ofer family. During the conversation I voiced social-democratic opinions that do not necessarily accord with the worldview or interests of most business barons. I insisted that the rich are also human beings, but claimed that Israeli capitalism can no longer guarantee that Israel's electronic media will be free and of high quality. I suggested that public broadcasting be strengthened, journalists become unionized and the government find a way to support journalism that is not dependent on wealth.

A day later, someone wrote that I am a frequent guest of Idan Ofer. Others followed suit. A one-time professional visit was presented in a distorted manner and tied to the opinions I had voiced in the television studio in a way that makes no sense. I have never had such a strange feeling of being presumed guilty of something, without being able to convince anyone otherwise.

My personal story is not of great public interest. Journalists who shoot must know how to take fire. That's our job, that's our lot. But the story about a friendship with Ofer that never was testifies to a kind of systemic breakdown. It joins other testimony that indicates that Israel is plagued today with kowtowing to wealth on the one hand and persecuting it on the other.

The original sin lies in privatization. In the 1990s a privatization process was carried out in Israel in which public monopolies and unique state assets were transferred to private hands without sufficient thought or planning. A small group of families - including the Ofers - assumed too much economic and political power. Centralization became a significant threat, both to the free market and free society in Israel.

But after the horses of privatization had left the stable, many Israelis changed their minds. After a delay of about 10 years, an obsessive public discussion began on the relationship between wealth and government. Now the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. Suddenly, every wealthy person is considered persona non grata. Any contact between a wealthy individual and a public figure is considered corrupt. The natural and healthy distrust of the rich has turned into paranoia.

Just as unmonitored privatization was a mistake, demagogic populism is a mistake, too. A sane country must not worship wealth, but it must not boycott it either. Wealth is an inseparable part of life in general, and an essential component of economic life in particular. By no means should wealth assume control of education, health, politics and the media. By no means should it trample the weak or prevent free competition. But nor should it be treated like a leper. The wealthy should not be persecuted for being wealthy. We should look them straight in the eye, treat them with respect, criticize them and make the limits of their power clear to them.

"The Shakshuka System" is a defective film. But its importance lies in the fact that it has brought about an open and lively public discussion on the question of big business. Now we must civilize and refine the discussion. The time has come to find a proper and sane place for wealth in our lives.