Written by Susan Freis Falknor
Reviewed by Susan Freis Falknor
George Gilder contends in The Israel Test that the key advantage of the capitalist and technology-fostering West against impoverishing socialism, radical Islam, and barbarism is a much-unappreciated conflux of human and cultural capital known as the Jewish people.
Economic and social commentator Gilder sees the attitude towards Israel as a litmus test that sorts out countries and individuals along what he perceives as the greatest divide of our time:
"The prime issue is not a global war of civilizations between the West and Islam or a split between Arabs and Jews. These conflicts are real and salient, but they obscure the deeper moral and ideological war. The real issue is between the rule of law and the rule of leveler egalitarianism, between creative excellence and covetous 'fairness,' between admiration of achievement versus envy and resentment of it."
In elucidating this profound split, Gilder ascribes a new significance to anti-Semitism today.
"In countries where Jews are free to invent and create, they pile up conspicuous wealth and arouse envy and suspicion. In this age of information when the achievements of mind have widely outpaced the power of masses and material force, Jews have forged much of the science and wealth of the era. Their pioneering contributions to quantum theory enabled the digital age. Their breakthroughs in nuclear science and computer science propelled the West to victory in World War II and the cold war. Their bioengineering inventions have enhanced the health and their microchip designs are fueling the growth of nations everywhere. Their genius has leavened the culture and economy of the world."
As to the importance of Jews to the United States, Gilder writes:
"Virtually all Americans who have achieved anything important in the twentieth century have had crucial Jewish colleagues and collaborators. Virtually none of the significant technological feats of the twentieth century would have been possible without critical contributions by Jews."
Marxists impugn capitalism as a zero-sum game in which one small group prospers only through the expropriation of the wealth of the many. To the contrary, Gilder argues, capitalism is a "positive-sum game," that is "based on an upward spiral of gains, with no essential limits to the creation of wealth." It is, in fact, he writes, the only system that can build wealth broadly while making democracy work. By contrast, the "crippling error of zero-sum economics" is the "chief cause of poverty"
Gilder documents the economic damage that anti-Semitism exacted from the many twentieth-century European countries which fell victim to it.
Several chapters probe the futility of what he ironically refers to as a "land for war" bargain with Palestinian voices - - as well as the great human tragedy of the profoundly anti-Semitic Palestinian economy and political culture.
Gilder also tells the story of the recent emergence of Israel as a world financial center, spurred by a series of tax cuts beginning in the 1980s.
Gilder recounts the work of John von Neumann and others Jews whose discoveries in theoretical mathematics and physics underlie the signature applied sciences of today - - from the atomic bomb to modern computing and optics.
Many of his chapters are in themselves contributions to the recent history of science. Interviewing many of technology's contemporary heroes, he highlights the pioneering computer work of holocaust survivor Dov Frohman, of physicist and Biblical scholar David Medved, and of Saifun Semiconductors' Boaz Eitan, to name just three. He traces the careers of these original thinkers in the U.S. and Israel, showing how they brought Israel "Inside the Internet."
Gilder tells the story of the emergence of Israel as a technological innovator, which has made the "tiny country" today a "global center of microchip, telecom, optics, software, biotech, and medical-devices research, the country's development and entrepreneurship rivaled only by its partners in Silicon Valley."
Here is Gilder's succinct review -"Silicon Israel: How market capitalism saved the Jewish state" - - of the Israeli IT industry. "Many of Intel's key products could be stamped Israel Inside," Gilder explains. But market and technology commentator Gilder also reminds us in this article of the transformation of a country which "[upheld] a philosophy of victimization and socialist redistribution that could only impede its progress" to "accomplish[ing] the most overwhelming transformation in the history of economics . . . ."
In closing, the 70-year-old Gilder recounts his own personal "Israel Test," which he underwent as a young man attending the Phillips Exeter Academy, a national New Hampshire-based school founded in 1781. Descendant of an old, intellectual New England family, Gilder abruptly found himself crowded out of a coveted spot on the Exonian editorial board by a group of classmates that he sneeringly identified to himself as "New York Jews."
Gilder recalls how sorely he was tempted to give in to the same passions of envy and anger that have always driven anti-Semitism. But an "intelligent and beautiful" tutor from Radcliffe College, by confessing herself also to be a "New York Jew," brought the young Gilder to a better mind:
"To this day I recall the moment as a supreme mortification and as a turning point. Rather than recognizing my shortcomings and inferiority and resolving to overcome them in the future, I had blamed the people who had outperformed me."
The Israel Test is a challenging book which is both an eloquent polemic and a collection of well-crafted essays. Yet, the wide-ranging chapters are not so much digressions from his main theme as enriching perspectives on it.