Monday, February 20, 2012

Menachem Begin's social justice

MK Ofir Akunis

Israel will soon mark 20 years since the passing of Israel’s sixth prime minister, Menachem Begin. The hundreds of thousands of people who attended his funeral testified to the love the nation bore him. Not for nothing was he described, upon embarking on his job, as a “Jewish prime minister.” Even his funeral was in traditional Jewish style, not the grand affair usually given to heads of state. It seems that since then, with every passing year, Begin the man as well as his doctrines become more and more relevant to the Israeli public. AOver the past year, especially with this summer’s social protests, the old-fashioned term “social justice” has made a comeback in Israel’s public discourse. Many people tend to claim the aspiration to social justice for themselves. Of course, they claim to know the “correct” way to achieve it, even as they spout empty slogans. In a world in which socialist governments lead their countries to economic crises, we have a bizarre phenomenon in Israel. In an odd renaissance, the new “social-democrats” have re-emerged onto the public scene, carried on a wave of fashion and bon ton. These are the same people who advocate uncontrolled government spending, who once supported a government-owned centralized economy (namely the Histadrut, Israel’s powerful labor federation) as well as those who favor a policy of curbing initiative and eliminating competition. Needless to say, they are all mistaken.

Social justice is not characterized by climbing deficits, higher taxes, breaching the government’s budget or raising unemployment rates, as proposed by self-described “social welfare NGOs” and “social democratic” movements. Social justice is something else entirely and was in fact well described by Menachem Begin.

Begin believed in a country with a free economy and concern for social welfare. A country in which there would not be a small group in the government or the Histadrut that would single-handedly control the entire Israeli economy. It is important to understand that government hinders rather than helps in growing the economy. Add to this rampant cronyism and nepotism, as well as the practice of hiring employees based on their political views or affiliations, and you have a recipe for a stultified, closed and monopolistic economy. Is this social justice? Just the opposite.

Begin did not use the term social justice very often. He simply acted in a way that promoted it. First, he restored dignity to ethnic groups and communities that had felt like outsiders before May 1977. Next, he launched neighborhood renewal projects, which led to massive improvements in many impoverished neighborhoods throughout Israel. Social justice, Begin believed, means first and foremost restoring the pride of Israeli’s various societal sectors.

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Twenty years after the death of Israel’s most socially conscious prime minister, we have an opportunity to examine how to achieve social justice today. Not just in speech but in action.

Here are a few realistic options. First of all, free education from age 3, which the government recently ratified for the first time in 28 years. Second, by raising the minimum wage, which for the first time exceeds NIS 4,100 ($1092) a month. Third, by developing fast train lines and highways to Israel’s periphery, from Beit Shean in the north all the way to Netivot, Sederot, Ofakim and Dimona in the south. In addition, we need cellular phone reforms, huge investments in higher education and a comprehensive solution to the problem of border infiltrators (illegal immigrants) who take jobs away from the weakest Israelis. Above all, we need an economic policy of fiscal responsibility, one that is level-headed and not populist. Such a policy is the reason for our economic growth and the entry of 150,000 Israelis into the workforce. That’s real social justice.

Twenty years after the death of Menahem Begin, the Likud government is following in his footsteps. The fulfillment of his doctrine has led to a strong economy that allows Israeli society to flourish.

The writer is a Knesset member from the Likud party.

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