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"I was nine. The radio, that big wooden box with Bakelite knobs, carried daily messages from the Ministry of Supplies and Rationing. Pregnant women, children and people with ulcers got extra food rations. Revstein, the grocer on the corner, cut out coupons from our food-stamp book with his blunt scissors and stacked them on a metal pick. Our religious butcher, Mendl Kribushei, who lived on our floor, once gave us a piece of prime meat that had fallen on the floor. And once we received 'Script': coupons that Uncle Max had sent from America, and an authorized shop gave us a chocolate bar for them."
Those are the reminiscences of media personality Yaron London describing the difficult early years of the state, when under a national austerity plan many basic food items were rationed. I've heard similar such stories from Israelis who lived through the tzena (austerity) period, including one relative who, after making aliya during those years, chose to return to the US for a period when she was about to have a child, because she was concerned over the shortage of fresh milk here.
Last week, when news broke that the developing global shortage of certain basic foodstuffs had led to a sharp rise in their prices - and the possibility that some of them, such as rice, might be rationed - my mind flashed back to those stories about the tzena period, when rice, corn, bread and other such goods were doled out on a prescribed basis.
To get a better understanding of the current food situation and its possible impact on Israel, I spoke with Prof. Yakir Plessner, of the Hebrew University's Department of Agricultural Economics and Management. He put my mind at ease that while the matter was indeed serious on an international level, and local prices for certain items were sure to rise, we were certainly not heading back to the days of food rationing.
"This is primarily a problem for those developing countries in Africa and Asia that are going to have difficulty purchasing enough food at these rising prices, but we are not one of them," he said. "This country is wealthy enough to afford these costs, although the government may have to increase subsidies to the poorest segments of the population."
And what about some of the proposals being floated to increase local food production, including Plessner's own suggestion that we cultivate more wheat in such open areas as the northern Negev?
"Certainly there are improvements we can make in agricultural policy, but these are too long-term to have any impact on the current trends. And anyway, it is not feasible that we can ever become self-sufficient, or anything close to it. Israel imports not only about 85 percent of its foodstuffs, we also import almost all our energy, and have a serious water situation. So even if there were solutions to make us more food self-sufficient, we don't have the energy or water available at a reasonable cost to carry them out."
ALTHOUGH THESE observations were specifically intended to address the current situation, they also generate food for thought about Israel's general situation as it celebrates the 60th year of its birth.
Because we speak so often here about fulfilling the Zionist dream of "making the desert bloom," and the fact that Israeli ingenuity has contributed significantly to the field of agriculture, especially in the cultivation of semi-arid land, we tend to forget how much of our food is imported. Nor could it be otherwise, as Israel's population grew from some 700,000 in 1948 to over 10 times that number over the next six decades, in a relatively small and dry patch of territory.
Israel overcame the tzena even during the period of its most explosive growth, and eventually developed into one of the world's small-nation economic success stories, not because it reached self-sufficiency in the production of food or any other good, but because it used ingenuity and brainpower to overcome a lack of natural resources and develop into a modern, open economy fully integrated into the global market place.
A telling contrast comes with neighbors such as Syria to the north, which despite several advantages over Israel has become an economic backwater, its dictatorial rulers too fearful of the political freedoms that often accompany open markets to permit the kind of free trade in goods, ideas and ties that allowed Israel to develop. Or Egypt to the south, where decades of corruption and protectionism have stifled the economic growth needed to accompany its burgeoning population, and is now as a result suffering riots in the streets over rising bread prices there.
Israel's achievements are thus as much a matter of interdependence as they are of independence - of its willingness, its eagerness, to join the family of nations of the free world. This is an aspect of our nation's success story that many of its most fervent boosters both here and abroad sometimes tend to underplay, especially when it comes into conflict with political viewpoints that pit local positions against those held even by our closest allies abroad.
It's all fine and good, for example, to brush aside, sometimes even contemptuously, European viewpoints about the Israeli-Arab conflict - except when one fails to take into account that the European Union is far and away our biggest trading partner, number one in imports and a close second in exports.
That trade is a big reason why today this country is not going to have bread riots or see a return to food rationing. It's also why, without compromising our essential security, Israel must invest no less in diplomacy than in maintaining its military; why it must respect international standards and court foreign opinion; why it must not confuse a pride in reestablishing Jewish sovereignty in this land after 2,000 years with the kind of blind arrogance, fanaticism and indifference to geopolitical realities that caused the loss of that sovereignty in the first place.
So on Israel's 60th birthday, even with all the threats and derision still directed our way, and internal divisions that are no less potentially dangerous, let us rightly celebrate the relatively strong, healthy and promising nation we have built here.
But let us equally remember, with a little humility, that while man does not live by bread alone, without that bread - most of it made from imported grain - we would not have an independence to celebrate.
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