(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/GAL BEN DOR)
When Dan Ben-David left his role as executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy in February, as Israel headed toward elections, the word on the street was that he was thinking of joining politics.
Instead, he started a rival research center, the Shoresh Institution, and took several of Taub’s top researchers with him.
“A number of us felt the need to create a completely independent research institute that’s not affiliated with any organization or interest,” Ben-David said.
He was instrumental in building Taub’s reputation as an important policy center in his six years there.
The research it presented in its annual Picture of the Nation reports found its way into policy discussions at the highest levels of government.
Last year, for example, the Finance Ministry went so far as to push back against the report’s assertion that 80 percent of Israelis “could not make ends meet.”
Shoresh does not accept money from persons or organizations “that can paint us in any way, either rightwing or left-wing, and certainly not the government,” Ben-David said.
Drawing an apparent contrast with the Taub Center, which is funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, he said Shoresh will not push any kind of agenda nor attempt to sway its research in one direction or another.
“We do the research, publicize whatever comes out the other side, regardless of whether it’s what people want to hear or not, whether it’s conventional wisdom or not,” Ben-David said.
This week, Shoresh released is first annual publication, entitled The Shoresh Handbook on Israel’s Society and Economy. It rings many of the same alarms Taub’s Picture of the Nation series has in the past: problems in education, health, infrastructure and large socioeconomic gaps.
Per capita, the report shows Israel has been steadily declining in measures such as senior research faculty in universities and hospital beds, while a yawning gap has opened up between Israel and Europe in the amount of road congestion. The top 20% of earners pay 89.2% of total income tax, but as inequality increases, their ranks are shrinking, the report said. Israel’s Arab and haredi communities will account for half of the population by 2059, but they are currently receiving dismal educations relative to the rest of the population, it said.
The report also features new research showing that ultra-Orthodox Jews in the US are more than twice as likely to have an academic degree than those in Israel (25% and 12%, respectively).
The strange gaps and divisions in Israel economy makes it an unusual case in the world, Ben-David said. On measures of family size and income, for example, most countries easily clump in groups with their high-, middle- or low-income peers. Israel is the sole outlier. “If you look at the graph, we’re kind of a weighted average between the United States and Eritrea,” he said.
The central message of the report is that Israel is on an unsustainable path in many fields, and it needs to make changes if it wants a bright future.
Asked to specify what kind of research, policy or conclusions he was barred from advancing at Taub, Ben-David said: “I’d rather not go into that. Clearly there was a problem, otherwise we wouldn’t have left. We felt that we needed to do this to be independent.”
The Taub Center, now under the leadership of former Antitrust Authority chief economist Avi Weiss, responded that it “has no agenda but to carry out and disseminate independent, unbiased research and to help policy makers make decisions on the basis of accurate data and professional analysis.”
Ayal Kimhi, Ben-David’s deputy at Taub, who made the move with him to Shoresh, said the decision was more a result of managerial disagreements with the JDC than any real or perceived dictates as to research outcomes.
“Taub was a complicated organization,” he said, adding that he believes it will continue to produce quality work despite the advent of Shoresh.
The JDC had no comment, “other than to offer our warmest wishes to Prof. Ben-David on this new endeavor.”