3 Lessons Israel Can Teach America

In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that the number of Mexican immigrants arriving in the United States is now equal to the number of those returning to Mexico, marking the end of  “the biggest immigration wave in modern times.” Combine that with the fact that some three out of every five new college graduates are unemployed, (not to mention those that are underemployed,) and the facts begin to paint a grim picture. America is no longer the land of opportunity. The American dream is dying. Europe isn’t much better off. Crippling debt and unemployment now threaten the very existence of the European Union. Obviously the old models are insufficient. How can modern societies continue to grow? It is possible. If America hopes to salvage any of its prosperity, learning from one of our closest allies and trading partners might be a good place to start.

Israel is the only Western country that has managed to bring unemployment “significantly lower than pre-crisis figures.” In 2010 and 2011, Israel enjoyed the fastest economic growth in the developed world, and thus became the only Western country that was upgraded in the last three years by Standard & Poor’s. Israel has plenty of its own problems and dysfunctions, no doubt. But what can Washington learn from Jerusalem?

Lesson #1: Innovation is the key to economic growth in the contemporary climate.

Almost 45% of Israel’s major exports are high-tech. They are leading exporters of green technology, and biomedical and computer equipment. They’ve managed to develop such a prosperous innovation sector through a combination of effective absorption of new immigrants and affordable higher education. As a result, Israel has a disproportionately high amount of patents, PhD’s and Nobel Prizes per capita. Affordable education and effective immigration policies are key to fostering a climate where creativity and technology can flourish in unison.

Israel has been able to invest so heavily in its youth and immigrants in part because of where the Israeli public does not spend its income: healthcare and imported food. Israel is almost self sufficient in terms of food production, an anomaly among developed nations. Thus fresh, healthy food is incredibly affordable.

Compare that to United States, the world’s fat-bottomed laughing stock and a net importer of food. Despite being one of the world’s leading agricultural producers, even California imports vast quantities of food. According to reports by the International Society of Ecology and Culture:

“If just 10% of Californians’ food expenditures were redirected toward food produced within the state, an estimated $848 million in additional income would flow to the state’s farmers, $1.38 billion would be injected into California’s overall economy, $188 million in tax revenue would be generated, and 5,565 jobs would be created.”

Farmers that export their products keep only 9 cents of every dollar spent, while farmers involved in direct marketing keep 80 to 90 cents to the dollar. If the entire U.S. restructured its food systems, the increase in jobs and revenue would make a dramatic impact. Investing in the population’s health is a key factor in poverty prevention.

Lesson #2: As I stated above, Israel has no shortage of its own problems and the United States is a vastly different society with a larger population. But perhaps lesson #2 is rebuilding communities’ local infrastructures, aka: investing in social cohesion means saving money in the long run.

For example, programs such has Catherine Sneed’s Garden Project in San Francisco have proven obscenely effective in reducing the recidivism rate for at-risk and incarcerated youth. Needing to cut law enforcement budgets, the way states have been in recent years, can be an opportunity to create new partnerships and experiment with different systems, less reliant on incarcerating youth. Investing in community role models is thrifty crime prevention. That is where the third and final lesson comes in.

Lesson #3: Utilize veterans.

America is currently unprepared to absorb the flood of returning military personnel with ample skills but scant resumes. Israel has a program called “vital work,” one-time contract jobs for military veterans. It helps them save for university or mortgages, and gain work experience while readjusting to civilian life. These tend to be grueling jobs that require a lot of self-discipline and a little sweat. As a society we’ve become accustomed to working overtime and eating drive-thru dinners to afford cheap, immigrant labor as a sanitizing barrier between the middle class and dirt. Americans can no longer afford the illusion that we can buy our way out of responsibility.

Salvaging America’s standards of living will mean tearing down and rebuilding infrastructure, the development of localized expertise in environmental science, population, economy, efficiency, and yes, a lot of strategic government spending. Social workers with grit, leadership, and organizational skills are exactly what we need. We will need to relearn grassroots leadership, self-reliance and sacrifice, all virtues at the heart of American values. If we hope to reap dramatic results we will need to take dramatic risks.

If we invest in education, community strength, and sustainable, self-reliant economics, maybe a few decades from now America will be the land of opportunity once again. Right now the U.S. clings to a history of greatness without much hope for its future. The American dream needs drastic renovation in order to survive reality.    

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Leigh Cuen

I hail from Orange County, California, but left my heart in Jerusalem. I spent the past 5 years in San Francisco, writing articles published by the Earth Island Journal, the S.F. Public Press, El Tecolote newspaper and J.weekly newspaper.

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