Survival of the fittest

Shraga Biran's new book heralds his belief in carpe diem as an economic model for the 21st century.

Shraga biran 88 (photo credit: Assaf Klieger)
Shraga biran 88
(photo credit: Assaf Klieger)
If you ask Shraga Biran, the country's wealthiest lawyer, for directions on where to find the right attitude to life, economics and philosophy, he'll point you toward a surprising road - not to the wisdom of Eastern mystics, or leading economic schools of thought, but rather to the French approach to skiing. Leaning back in his chair in his cozy yet expansive office, complete with a panoramic view of Tel Aviv, and exuding energetic personal warmth, the 75-year-old entrepreneur elaborates. "The problem with skiing is how to get off the mountain without breaking your head. According to the Swiss, you're supposed to flow with the topography, to stream down with the mountain. Then there's the French school of thought, which says: Attack the mountain! As you descend, you assault. Then you can take on the next bend." When translated into life philosophies, Biran says, the Swiss approach is "banal and monotonous," while the French idea directs one to "get up in the morning and weigh up the alternatives." That is the spirit which drove Biran to author In Praise of Opportunism, a new book which heralds the motto of carpe diem as an economic model for the 21st century. Biran made his colossal fortune through real estate initiatives, launching lucrative residential and commercial building projects here and abroad. As a lawyer, though, he has fought consistently for social rights, representing the poor, victims of discrimination and the politically disenfranchised. Eli Zohar, a leading lawyer (and a regular representative of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) has known Biran for years. "We were together in the struggle for kibbutzim," he says. "I saw how he took to heart the extreme harm done to kibbutzim and their world view." Since earning his fortune, Biran hasn't changed a bit, Zohar declares. He has shown "no sign of change, not in his lifestyle, not in the people around him, or in his nonstop drive to help. This is one of the people I admire most because of his devotion and his uncontrollable desire to find social solutions. I saw how a real idealist developed ideas from the extreme socialist side of the spectrum to the world-embracing, rational, capitalist side, and how he forms viable alternatives for out-of-date ideals." BEHIND BIRAN'S friendly yet intense gaze hides a heartrending history. After being orphaned by the Nazis and losing his brother in the Holocaust, he fled to the woods on the Polish-Ukrainian border where he somehow survived until the war ended. "Had I succumbed to fate, I would not exist today. I would have been destroyed a thousand times," he says. Biran then immigrated to Palestine, lived in Kibbutz Messilot in the Beit She'an Valley and took up arms to defend the country following the invasion of five Arab armies in 1948. He concedes that the epic historical events he lived through helped shape his outlook, but also insists that it is one's approach, rather than life experience, which determines destinies. "I completely identified with the War of Independence," he says. "I felt that the War of Independence was a just war, a war of liberation, a war which expressed the historical truth of the Jewish nation, and a war which was basically imposed on the Israeli people." The Jews have been governed alternately by fatalism and a desire for self-determination, Biran points out. "If there is a nation which had to fight against fate for its entire history, from the moment it was born, it is the Jewish nation. There's no other people that paid so dearly down the generations for its very existence." He takes a mixed approach to Judaism. An avid atheist, he acknowledges, on the one hand, the wisdom of Jewish sources, and respects Judaism's fortitude which kept it from retreating quietly into the darkness of history like other faiths. On the other hand, he argues, Jewish religious fatalism left the Jews of Europe unable to deal with the Holocaust. "If there is a nation which has to be filled with the belief that there is no such thing as fate, and the only way forward is to fight for a better existence, it's the Jews. Those who surrendered to fate in World War II, those who believed that what happened in the Holocaust was divinely sanctioned and went to their destruction with a prayer in their mouth and their hearts," he pauses, clearing his throat, "It's very tragic, but that's what happened. I think that the Zionists who grew up during World War II were anti-fatalistic." In fact, it is precisely the utopian promise offered by world religions and ideologies - capitalism and communism alike - that causes people to be passive, Biran argues. "Look at what religions and the great ideologies sell. It's always been the future - just try a little harder, pray a little more, be righteous and the day will come and you'll get your reward, if not in this world than in the next. This is true for Judaism, Christianity, communism, brutal Nazism, all of them promised the future, not the immediate present which can be tested, and of course people fell into this trap." That's where Biran's theory of opportunism, a theory that he says "has never had an opportunity," comes in. "I don't believe in any higher power. I believe in lower powers, egocentrism, selfishness, that's what exists. The question is how to fight them." SO WHAT is opportunism all about? In his book, Biran tries to dissociate the word from its historically pejorative definition. In the past, being opportunistic meant exploiting other people, he says. Today, he wants to redefine opportunism as an exploitation of situations, not people. "In this book, I attempt to demolish ideological determinism and to extol opportunism - not that which is viewed as negative and branded as despicable, but the opportunism which is... an unanticipated conjunction of circumstances and events, capabilities and advantages that create a possibility, a situation which is in itself a positive achievement," an excerpt reads. For Biran, opportunism is a way to unblock the resources needed by the poor to realize their potential, to exit their nightmare of poverty and to create "an abundance of opportunities." He points to the information revolution, "second industrial revolution," as well as the creation of a new class of people, the "creative class," as proof that this is possible. "Right now, a new group exists in the world," he says with optimism. "This is the creative class. It is made up of people who exist without a predetermined daily routine. They're self-employed; they're artists, photographers, architects, lawyers, journalists, authors, media producers - all of them are people who don't show up at offices, but usually work either in small teams or alone. In Israel, more than 30 percent of the workforce is self-employed, members of the creative class." Biran is excited by this development, as well as by the hi-tech start-up revolution because, he says, it shows how wealth can be created out of seemingly thin air, simply by exploiting opportunities, in this case presented by the advent of information technologies. "Today, the best inventions were made by people in garages. Wealth begins in the mind. The world has changed completely," he says. "Once, the world worked on the basis that wealth bought technology. Today, technology buys wealth." Opportunism, at its fundamental level, is the ideology of opportunity, Biran explains. "You have to be awake, and seize the opportunity immediately. It's now. The opportunity exists today. Either you're equipped to exploit it or you're not." In his quest for social justice, Biran casts aside what he says are outdated notions of "expropriating property of the haves and transferring it to the have-nots," traditionally the ideological home ground of socialist economies. "There is, however, another political, judicial and economic way to distribute unallocated wealth, mainly new wealth created by the global economy, but also existing wealth that has not yet been acquired," he writes. "The result will be not only the rescue of the poor from their poverty, but also the exhaustion of possibilities for the creation of new wealth." DURING A lecture delivered to the annual Herzliya Conference last month, Biran expounded on how some of the "new wealth" can be attained. "In practical terms," he said, the poor had to be "given the appropriate infrastructure... given access to assets, equipped with physical and human capital, [and] provided with property." The vehicle to achieving this is a process termed by Biran as "social privatization." He advocates privatizing the "vast properties in the hands of the state as the owner, or in its control as the regulator, a move that would open the way to the distribution of the new wealth to those who do not yet enjoy the possession of property." Biran denies that he is advocating a rehashed form of libertarianism, arguing instead that he is trying to give the existing, global trend of privatization a social dynamic. "There is a feeling that under neo-liberalism and social democracies, the gap between massive poverty and concentrated wealth grew. This is a huge waste of resources. The poverty bomb is ticking, and it is the worst form of bomb there is. I propose that through social privatization, you can provide a minimal base for all world populations, providing them with housing, health care and education, which will give them a basis for a safer existence and enable them to enter the opportunity game," he says. Biran points out that 75 percent to 80% of the world's wealth today is "not tangible" and has been produced over the past 25 years. "From technology, the Internet, biotechnology, throughout the whole world of information, new wealth has been created by people without wealth," he says. Now the time has come to give the poor a chance to "step up and become active players." In a culture in which the individual stands at the center of modern society, and is ensured education, health care and housing, poverty can be eliminated, he claims. "As soon as these basics are covered, and people are educated to be creative, to get up in the morning and not to surrender to the depressive influences around them, but to achieve, each in his area," the poor can be transformed into successful opportunists, Biran maintains. Menial work, like garbage collection, can be left to robots and other technologies now rapidly developing, he adds. Biran's claim that poverty leads to fundamentalism faces a head-on challenge in the form of Osama bin Laden, the millionaire who helped found al-Qaida. Leaders of fascist movements in history also came from "good" families, Biran says, but gained the support of impoverished masses. "Look at the pictures of the two suicide bombers who attacked Dimona. These are two kids who lived in the most horrendous poverty," Biran insists. He redefines poverty as a psychological torment, rather than a state defined purely by physical conditions. "Poverty is... a lack of security about life from today to tomorrow, a lack of certainty that you'll have something to eat or drink tomorrow, that there's a future. Poverty is first and foremost a feeling of being grounded, a lack of a freedom to maneuver, having no sense of a future. It's the feeling that you're not heading anywhere, the sense of being stuck. That causes desperation, and mental claustrophobia of the worst kind. That immediately leads you to look up to the sky because that's where you think the solution lies." Pointing to poverty in Africa, Biran says that "the hunger and diseases there will one day have a political consequence." He is most concerned, however, by the human catastrophe unfolding there. "This problem can be solved," he says with frustration. "Is there is a reason why medical care should be as expensive as it is there? Let them [the drug companies] make their money on the wealthy customers of the US and Europe. But to demand that Africans pay these prices for medicines?" he asks outraged. Biran points with similar fury at the food stocks of the West, while Africans face starvation. He expresses bafflement at the top priority given by the West to global warming, which presents dangers "in a hundred years," while nothing is done to "counter the fact that one out of every five children born in Africa won't reach five years of age now." WHEN IT comes to the disturbingly growing gap between rich and poor in Israel, Biran sums up his feelings with one word: "unjustifiable." With quiet anger, he estimates that 30% of Israelis live in poor neighborhoods, plagued with overcrowded, low-quality housing, low levels of education and a poorer standard of health care. None of these problems should exist, he says, because over the past 60 years the country has made major economic leaps forward, measured in terms of average income per household (up from $5,000 in the 1980s to more than $20,000 today), manufacturing, exports and agriculture. "But Israel left behind some 2.5 million people," he says. With the end of public housing benefits, the introduction of elitist medical care and the spread of unequal education, the gap is expanding, Biran warns. "I proposed a program of urban renewal in Israel, based on social privatization for impoverished areas, where people can receive building rights and not be expelled from their homes, and have their public living space upgraded. This can be done. The sky's the limit," he says. "I offered a recovery plan for all of South Tel Aviv, from Abu Kabir to Salameh. I wanted to build a huge park there - parks are one of the best tools for urban renewal. There are no parks in poor neighborhoods." One of Biran's most exceptional qualities is his unquenchable curiosity to know what others think of his ideas, and toward the end of our interview, he began soliciting our photographer's opinions on his urban renewal scheme. A lengthy debate ensued. In Biran's view, it was another opportunity to create a believer. As he states in the opening of his book, "I have always grappled with destiny and believed it possible to overcome its impositions. I swore that I would never let myself be cornered."