Avishay Braverman, an economist, scholar and former senior Israeli politician, brought a message of guarded optimism about Israel’s future to a packed lecture hall at Berkeley Law on Feb. 25.
Braverman highlighted pressing challenges facing the Jewish state, including economic inequality, a stalling technology sector, shifting demographics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While he said the classic Zionist vision of a secular, liberal Jewish democracy could be endangered if these problems are not addressed, Braverman also believes that hope is a necessary condition for improvement.
“You have to take actions, because miracles happen only if you do things,” said Braverman, who served as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev from 1990 to 2006, was a senior economist at the World Bank and chaired the finance and economic affairs committees as a Knesset member for the Labor Party in 2006-2015.
His presentation, “Israel at a Major Crossroads,” hosted by the Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at U.C. Berkeley, began with the economic challenges Israel is facing, including the exodus of talented young entrepreneurs. Rather than the startup nation, Braverman said, Israel has become an “exit nation.” While Israelis may receive their education in the country and perhaps start a company, when it comes time to grow, many decamp for greener pastures, such as Silicon Valley.
He said a main cause is that investment and government support are limited to a select few in Israel, often those who served in elite military units and were plugged into the right networks.
Though the tone of his presentation was light, he spoke passionately about what he views as an uneven distribution of resources and opportunity in Israel, and a ruling elite that lacks the vision of early Israeli economic and political leaders.
Braverman, 68, decried those who “just take the money and run,” noting that in the state’s early years there was a sense of commitment to creating corporations that would take care of their workers and help develop the entire country.
Another factor he cited as contributing to economic inequality is demographic — integrating the booming population of Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the workforce.
Braverman also addressed the most public challenge facing the Jewish state, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Stressing the importance of coexistence and hailing his work with Bedouin students and faculty at Ben-Gurion University, he said any solution requires working toward tangible change within such “islands of sanity.”
“If agents of hope focus on certain projects and they do good, and then they connect … maybe the Messiah can visit a little bit from time to time,” Braverman said, lamenting that “agents of fear” tend to be far more successful.
“The problem has to be addressed without emotion,” he said. “When I sit with people I say, ‘OK, you don’t want to partition Israel. Then explain to me, what is the solution?’ ”
For a man who professes optimism, however, Braverman said he sees no clear path forward for Israelis and Palestinians. He repeatedly invoked the need for “miracles” and said “life is about events of small probability. The world is not necessarily about linear or nonlinear extrapolation.”
When he was younger, a Palestinian state next to Israel seemed the obvious solution, he said, but at the time the lack of Palestinian leadership undermined progress.
Should a single state become a reality, he said, Israel would have to decide whether to shift to a one-person, one-vote system, which could lead to a non-Jewish prime minister being elected, or try to set up a confederation as exists in Switzerland.
Whatever the future holds, Braverman said that to maintain the Zionist dream it is crucial to stay positive and make progress wherever possible, with the understanding that such small changes might eventually lead to big breakthroughs.
“There are enough agents of hope that if we work together there will be a tipping point,” he said. “We will wake up one morning with a Jewish Mandela and an Arab Ben-Gurion.”