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From housing to religion, solutions are within reach

Israel is actually in a good position to deal with many seemingly intractable problems.

Last week we discussed possible solutions for Israel’s dysfunctional political system. This week we will make suggestions with reference to Israel’s various social issues, including housing, income disparity, crime and corruption, as well as ethnic and religious divisions.

From the outset, let me say that although Israelis often criticize their health and education systems, as an American-Israeli I can assure those critics that both the health and education systems, while certainly not perfect, are very good compared to most other countries. Let me also say that in a country which has very high defense and security expenditures for obvious and unavoidable reasons, the budget for social issues of all kinds is not bankrupting the country, as it is so many others in the Western world. Indeed, as we have pointed out, Israel’s economic and financial situation is an object of envy to many.

The contentious issue of affordable housing availability is actually the easiest to address. It is a simple case of supply and demand. Demand is high and rising due to various factors but supply is not keeping up. The most important reason for that is that the state owns too much of the land of Israel and is releasing it for public and private housing development too slowly. End of story.

Organized crime is a serious problem, but since it is largely connected to the illegal drug trade, a solution is at hand, and one that is gaining full or partial acceptance in many places, including several states in the US. Marijuana, cocaine and heroin consumption should be decriminalized and marijuana completely legalized, along with expanded education and treatment programs. It has been proven over and over again that prohibition of substances that people want simply does not work. Also, if it’s legal you can tax it and improve the budget balance! Again, end of story.

Corruption associated with drugs would be addressed as above. Political corruption; that is, misappropriation of public funds by public officials, is a world-wide phenomenon and always has been. The solution is a combination of paying officials adequately and effective investigation by the authorities charged with that responsibility. It will never disappear but it can be rendered manageable.

Now come the harder problems: class, ethnic and religious. Israel need not go down the path of the rest of the capitalist world, with ever-increasing income disparities. It needs to be clarified, first, that the real problem is not income disparity, which is a symptom. The real problem, here as elsewhere, is wealth disparity (wealth defined as income-producing assets). That problem can be best addressed by encouraging programs that spread as widely as possible the ownership of capital assets among the population as a whole, through such mechanisms as cooperatives, employee stock ownership plans (quite common in Israeli high-tech) and community investment trusts. The models exist in various parts of the world and should be studied, adapted to local conditions, and adopted.

Ethnic minorities of substantial size include Druze, Christians (now called Aramaeans) and Muslim Arabs. The first two are not a problem–quite the contrary–they contribute well beyond their numbers (about two percent of the population each) to Israeli society, including the armed forces. I would argue that the horrible conditions existing in much of the Arab Middle East is gradually resulting in more and more Muslims embracing full involvement with Israel. Recently-adopted programs to encourage economic and infrastructure development and improved law enforcement in Arab communities should help a great deal. Equally helpful would be the creation of predominantly Arab political parties dedicated to serving their constituency rather than attacking Israel.

Finally, to fearlessly enter where angels fear to tread: religious divisions within the Jewish population. The Knesset and the government must find the courage to clearly demarcate those areas within the jurisdiction of the civil authorities and those where the religious authorities should hold sway. The latter should be limited to matters pertaining to the religious community represented by those authorities and to no other group within the population.

Okay, there you are. Social problems solved! No? I look forward to your comments (constructive and polite, please).

This article was originally published by Globes.