SEA of change

The Social and Economic Academy in Tel Aviv is gaining popularity as it offers Israelis with economic policy alternatives.

sea of change 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy of SEA)
sea of change 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy of SEA)
You're young, highly educated, and committed to social change. With all the passion of youth, you vehemently oppose the direction that Israel has taken during the past few years away from the old socialist economic model and toward American-style free market capitalism. You care deeply about the problems of poverty and social inequality here in Israel, and what you see as the ever-widening gap between the "haves" and "have-nots." For as long as you can remember, you have been upset with the status quo, determined to explore alternatives, and frustrated by the lack of venues for serious political discussion and debate. So, what do you do? If you are like most young people, you decide-sooner or later-that there is really very little you can do. You read your daily newspaper with the requisite amount of youthful "fear and loathing," and toss it onto the floor as you reach for the TV remote. You watch the TV news with mounting, but impotent anger. You surf the Internet and perhaps haunt the secondhand bookshops on Allenby and King George Streets in Tel Aviv. If you are fortunate enough to have one or two like-minded friends, then perhaps you meet from time to time in a Rehov Sheinkin Caf , to analyze events and argue theory. Or, if you are Aviv Wasserman, you get a few like-minded friends and acquaintances together and establish a new university. Now all of 33-years-old, Wasserman recalls, "We thought that Israel deserved a better platform to publicly discuss alternatives to the prevailing social and economic policies that Israel has had for the past 20 years. We thought there were a lot of alternatives, especially when you looked internationally - the Scandinavian model, the South American model, the Jewish model, the Muslim model, or the Christian model. There are lots of alternative models to the American neo-liberal model - which has been adopted here in Israel - to address the problems of growing inequality and growing poverty. We thought that the discourse on these issues was much too narrow. We thought that Israel deserved a popular platform, that wouldn't be too expensive, that everyone could attend." Thus, the Social and Economic Academy (SEA) was born, says Wasserman, "to offer knowledge about the situation here in Israel and alternatives for change." Along with Wasserman, now chairman and guiding spirit of the Academy, co-founders included Tamar Gozansky, lecturer at Ben Gurion University and former Member of Knesset; Dr. Amira Gelblum, lecturer at the Open University; Dr. Yiftah Goldman, lecturer at Tel Aviv University; and Efraim Davidi, Lecturer at Tel Aviv University and one of the leading Histadrut Labor Federation figures. Wasserman's resume, prior to founding the Academy, was particularly impressive. Director of the Human Rights Center at the Academic College of Law in Ramat Gan, attorney Aviv Wasserman was in charge of a staff of seven lawyers and 90 students who provided pro bono legal assistance to approximately 8,000 needy clients a year. Launched in Tel Aviv with a few pilot classes three years ago, the Academy immediately exceeded the founders' initial expectations. Wasserman recalls, "People came from all over Israel, and all kinds of people: high school students, journalists, lawyers, post graduate students from mainstream universities, unemployed people, janitors, security guards, pensioners. They all came to study at this new open university." What did they come to study? From the beginning, the Social and Economic Academy offered classes and lectures in opposition to the American "Neo-Liberal" social and economic model, which Wasserman defines as free market capitalism with minimal government supervision or intervention in the labor or social sectors, a thin public sector and economic assistance to the poor provided mainly by private charities. A favorite alternative is what Wasserman and others call the Scandinavian model - what others refer to as the welfare state - marked by vigorous government supervision of the economy, a huge public sector and guaranteed, cradle-to-grave social support for each and every citizen. While this has continued to be the overall political slant of the Academy - along with a strongly stated opposition to economic globalization - other voices are heard. Says Wasserman, "Each year the poverty in Israel is getting worse and worse. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider and wider. No one offers an alternative to that. We're just trying to say that Israel will benefit from widening the social and economic discourse, which is very narrow, both in the mainstream academies and in the Israeli media. There is a vacuum in Israeli society that we are simply trying to fill. Every professor, teacher, rabbi or whatever that has an alternative to offer, we give them a platform." And those alternatives, Wasserman insists, are fairly wide ranging. "SEA is pluralistic. Some of our lecturers are rabbis who derive their alternative policies from Judaism, others from Christianity and [some] from Islam. [There are] communists, English Third-Way and Scandinavian models. The only people you won't see teaching in the school are people who believe that Israel isn't neo-liberal enough." There are some genuine luminaries teaching at SEA as well, including Professor Ariel Rubinstein from the Department of Economics at Tel Aviv University and winner of the 2002 Israel Prize in Economics. Others are experts in subjects that Wasserman says can only be taught at SEA. An example is Dr. Ami Vetouri, holder of a PhD in the Scandinavian socioeconomic model, which he teaches only at SEA. Dr. Vetouri is listed among the school's board of directors as "employed at Ben Gurion Airport." Not everyone, however, is a fan of Wasserman or a supporter of SEA's efforts. In an April 17, 2005 statement to the The Jerusalem Post, the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, for example, which describes itself as "an independent pro-market public policy think tank," branded the school's founders and faculty as "a group of neo-Marxists, anti-globalists and plain old-time socialists who wish Israel could regress to the good old days of Mapai state paternalism (minus Mapai's patriotism and its corruption, they vow)," who have, "been agitating from their university and media pulpits against the growing popularity of the market economy, which they claim has been dominating public discourse in Israel." ICSEP said of Wasserman, "An attorney is trained to argue any case; but anyone who believes that in monopoly-ridden Israel, where government favor is still a major creator of wealth and crony capitalism is rampant, competitive free markets 'have been taken to the extreme' will believe anything. More accurately, he will try to sell you anything, however absurd…" Despite its detractors, however, SEA's left-leaning ideology has evidently struck a chord in the hearts and minds of various sectors of the Israeli public. At present, some 450 lecturers are voluntarily teaching upwards of 1,500 students at 10 branches throughout Israel. And those 1,500 students are by no means confined to high school kids and pensioners. Among those coming to SEA to learn and participate have been members of the Knesset. "We've had Shelley Yacimovich from the Labor Party, Gilad Erdan from Likud, Haim Oron from Meretz. They come. They participate. They engage in a public debate regarding the issues. And after that, they go to the Knesset , where there is currently a social sector bill that was written together with professors and lawyers that give lectures in the Social and Economic Academy," says Wasserman, who sees this type of interaction as a major way in which SEA has the potential to affect genuine social change. Indeed, as word of the new university began to spread, people began coming to the school from all over Israel, prompting the opening of new branches in Jerusalem and Haifa. Presently, there are also branches in Beersheba, Migdal Ha'emek, Sderot, one in Wadi Ara and one in Rahat - for the Beduin community. The newest branch, in Beit Shemesh, opened at the end of December. In all cases - including SEA's main branch in Tel Aviv, the Academy rents classroom and auditorium space from schools and community centers. Course tuition - asked only from those able to pay it - never surpasses NIS 250 for an entire semester, and it is used exclusively for the rental of lecture venues. All lecturers, including Wasserman, work on a voluntary basis. Says Wasserman, "We want everyone - high school kids, the unemployed, pensioners and so on to be able to come and study with us. So this whole initiative is voluntary. No one is getting paid." At present, SEA is an open public platform for knowledge, discussion and debate, not an accredited university. People come to listen, learn and be involved in a community of people with similar interests and beliefs. The school confers no degrees, its classes are not graded, nor do SEA classes confer equivalency credit toward degrees at other schools. All of this, says Wasserman, will happen in the future. Wasserman has good reason to be optimistic; both the prestigious London School of Economics and New York's New School University (formerly the New School for Social Research) had beginnings very similar to Israel's fledgling Social and Economic Academy. All three began by trying to create a university that was open, dealt with socially relevant issues and endeavored to address the needs and changes in their respective societies. Meet the devil The idea of creating an Israeli alternative educational institution with an anti-establishment ideology began to take shape after several dozen academics and social activists convened in Tel Aviv three years ago to try to answer a difficult question: How to build a just society with a strong and efficient public sector in a country that has abandoned socialism in favor of something called "neo-liberalism." In virtually all of its public relations material, on its website, and as a running theme throughout most of its classes and lectures is the idea that the Social and Economic Academy exists to explore and advance alternatives to the "neo-liberal model." So, what is this demon called neo-liberalism? Interestingly enough, the term is rarely heard in the US. American media use other names to describe this school of thought: "supply side" economics, after the theories of conservative economist Milton Friedman; Reaganism, after the US president who first made it national policy; conservative Republicanism, after the political party that continues to champion it; or free market capitalism, which is precisely what it is. For the past 30 years, one word has sufficed to describe it in the UK: Thatcherism. By whatever name we choose to call it, we are talking about a general movement - beginning in the 1970s - away from government control, supervision or protection of the economy and toward private, corporate control of the market. In its classic form, neo-liberalism is an economic ideology which argues that unregulated trade, free markets, free trade, and the unrestricted flow of goods and capital will produce the greatest social, political and economic good. The neo-liberal economic model advocates minimal government intervention, minimal spending, minimal taxation, minimal regulations and minimal direct involvement in the economy. The argument is that a rising tide lifts all boats - that when business and corporations prosper, everyone benefits from a "trickle down" effect of more investments, more jobs, more and higher salaries, and thus more money being pumped into the economy by business activity, not through artificial government intervention. Detractors argue that market forces are inherently inequitable and that not enough benefits truly trickle down to societies' lower levels. In Britain and the US during the past 25 to 30 years, neo-liberalism has advocated the dismantling or privatization of what has been called the Welfare State, with its wide array of government-financed social programs and services. Left-wing activists here in Israel, like those at the core of the Social and Economic Academy, charge that the wholesale adoption of the neo-liberal model here over the past 25 years has not only resulted in a shift of economic and social power from governmental to private hands, but also a loss of Israel's old egalitarianism, the creation of socio-economic classes, and a widening gap between rich and poor - in which the poor are being left by the side of the road. To find out about SEA programs near you, contact the school's main office in Tel Aviv at Tel. (03) 644-4493, 0544-201144, email [email protected], or visit the school's website at