I’m in South Tel Aviv, a few feet away from our Neve Schechter Center for Jewish Culture. The view behind me provides an opportunity to ask, how does Israel reflect core values of Jewish culture? What kind of society do we seek in the Jewish State?
In South Tel Aviv illegal immigrants and working class families live next door to towers built for millionaires. Investment houses and chic restaurants operate alongside greasy garages and furniture factories.
Wealthy European Jews buy multimillion dollar apartments – for vacations and as insurance policies against Anti-semitism in their countries. On one hand, Jews around the world owning apartments in in an Israeli city connects them to Israel, which is great, but the down side is that it contributes to extremely high apartment prices in Israel, making homeownership in the Tel Aviv area all but unaffordable for most Israeli families. The high cost of housing has become a social crisis for Israeli society.
The two great proponents of political Zionism – Herzl and Jabotinsky, were both classical liberals, who championed free markets and private property as critical to economic development of the future Jewish State, while underscoring the critical importance of social solidarity. Neither was religious, yet both of them in their Zionist visions called for the implementation of the Biblical Jubilee year as ethical and moral bulwarks in a Jewish State.
In his novel Altneuland, Herzl proposed that there be no private ownership of land, that land would belong to an independent company, to be leased to individuals and returned after 49 years. This was perhaps the principle behind the Jewish National Fund/KKL, though there was never an actual redistribution of land in the sense Herzl might have intended.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky proposed the total redistribution of property in the Jubilee year. His view was that individual competition would spur economic growth, while intergenerational redistribution of wealth through implementation of the Jubilee would create equality of opportunity.
Classic western liberalism views property as an inalienable right. The Torah views the land as belonging to God – individuals own it conditionally. The Biblical commandment in this week’s Parsha, Bahar, to “proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all its inhabitants”, is God’s demand for a restoration of socio-economic equality every 50 years. Similarly, the Zionist thinkers, socialist and capitalist alike, saw the Land of Israel as belonging to the Jewish people, not to individual Jews. Free markets were important to success of the Zionist enterprise, yet property was not to be an inalienable right.
Estate taxes are one way of implementing the value of intergenerational justice embodied in Jubilee in the modern world, and in 1949 the Knesset imposed an estate tax of 40%. Interestingly, Israel’s religious parties were always opposed to estate taxes, since Jewish law as it evolved from the Talmud required that fathers leave all their property to their children.
In 1981, the estate tax was abolished. A recent attempt by Treasury Minister Kachlon calling for partial restoration of the estate tax on multiple homes only, failed. Since 1981, Israel has become a wealthy country, and economic inequality has steadily increased, while our sense of social solidarity has been in steady decline.
Something to think about as we reflect on the Jewish state after 70 years – and on our vision for the next 70 years.
Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes.