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Review: Gilder Addresses Economics of Settlement

George Gilder sets the record straight on regional demographics, economics and the contributions of Jewish settlers to the viability of the entire region.

The Israel Test

In his 2009 book, “The Israel Test,” George Gilder views Israel through the lens of a successful entrepreneur. He concludes that the freedom to innovate is what led Israel to its unprecedented commercial and political success, second only to the United States in venture capitalism, world-wide. Now, in his recent article “The Economics of Settlement” he addresses the entire Zionist narrative in economic terms (American Spectator, June 2011 issue), and concludes that were it not for the daring, innovation and hard work of the early Zionists the land that comprised the British Mandate (Israel, Gaza, Judea, Samaria and Jordan) could not possibly support five million Arabs, let alone 12 million people in total. Did the Jews steal Arab land, or did they buy wasteland and make it fertile so that millions of Arabs could move in?
Gilder first addresses the issue of population and water resources. “Although these two concerns might seem unrelated, they converge in the history of Israel, created by several generations of settlers and constrained at every point by the dearth of water in a mostly desert land. In the mid-19th century, before the arrival of the first groups of Jewish settlers fleeing pogroms in Russia, Arabs living in what became the mandate territory of Palestine – now Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza – numbered between 200,000 and 300,000. Their population density and longevity resembled today’s conditions in parched and depopulated Saharan Chad. …some 5.5 million Arabs now live in the former British Mandate, with a life expectancy of more than 70 years, … mainly attributable, for better or worse, to the work of those Jewish settlers.”
Gilder draws extensively from the work of Walter Clay Lowdermilk, an American expert on land usage, who in 1939 traveled through the Mandate region and chronicled the origins of the Jewish miracle we call Israel.
He says, “What amazed Lowdermilk, though – and changed his life – was not the 1,000 years of deterioration but the some 50 years of reclamation of both the highlands and the lowlands by relatively small groups of Jewish settlers. As one of many examples of valley reclamation, he tells the story of the settlement of Petah Tikva, established by Jews from Jerusalem in 1878, in defiance of warnings from physicians who saw the area outside what is now Tel Aviv as hopelessly infested with malarial mosquitoes. After initial failures and retreats, Petah Tikva became “the first settlement to conquer the deadly foe of malaria,” by “planting Eucalyptus [locally known as ‘Jew trees’] in the swamps to absorb the moisture,” draining other swamps, importing large quantities of quinine, and developing rich agriculture and citri-culture. By the time of Lowdermilk’s visit, Petah Tikva had become the largest of the Jewish rural settlements,” supporting 20,000 people “where there were only 400 fever-ridden fellaheen sixty years ago.” (Today it is at the center of Israel’s high-tech industry.)
“In draining swamps, leaching saline soils, redeeming dunes into orchards and poultry farms, in planting millions of trees on rocky hills, in constructing elaborate water works and terraces on the hills, in digging 548 wells and supporting canals in little more than a decade and irrigating thousands of acres of land, establishing industries, hospitals, clinics, and schools, the 500,000 Jewish settlers who arrived before the creation of Israel massively expanded the very absorptive dimensions and capacity of the country. It was these advances that made possible the fivefold 20th-century surge of the Arab population by 1940.”
Gilder goes on to say, ‘…Particularly significant in Lowdermilk’s view were the purchases of large expanses of unused Arab land by Jewish settlers, many of whom had earned the necessary funds by their own hard work on the arid soils. On most occasions, the settlers bought only a small proportion of an individual Arab’s holding and paid three or four times what similar plots sold for in Syria (and far more even than in Southern California). Thus the Jewish purchases provided capital for Arab farms, allowing a dramatic expansion of their production. “In cases where the land belongs to absentee owners and tenants are forced to move…I found that the Jewish purchasers had provided compensation to enable the tenants to lease other property.”’
The article states, ‘Without Jewish settlements, Jordan was suffering heavy emigration (mostly to America and Palestine) while Palestine attracted increasing flows of immigrants, mostly clustering around the Jewish settlements. With Jewish advances in food production and in medicine and public hygiene, Arab health statistics increasingly converged with those of the Jewish settlers. While the Arab birth rate actually dropped by 10 percent, the death rate fell by one-third and infant mortality dropped 37 percent. The net result was an Arab annual population growth rate of 16.2 percent, the highest in the world (exclusive of immigration). Lowdermilk summed it up: “Rural Palestine is becoming less and less like Trans Jordan, Syria and Iraq and more like Denmark, Holland, and parts of the United States [Southern California].”
So coming back to alarms about a rising threat of water exhaustion in the Middle East, Gilder points out, “that the Israeli ‘settlers’ (and to the PLO all Israelis are settlers) once again are the solution rather than the problem in the region. Since the foundation of the State of Israel in a land that is half desert with no rain for six months of the year, the population has risen tenfold. While the amount of land under cultivation has nearly tripled, agricultural production has increased sixteen fold, producing some $800 million worth of Israeli farm exports last year. At the same time, industrial output has surged fiftyfold. Meanwhile, Israeli use of water has decreased by 10 percent.
“Israelis now purify and recycle some 95 percent of the nation’s sewage, including imports of sewage from the West Bank and Gaza – ‘They sell us sewage and we give them potable water,’ said one Israeli official.”
He concluded that, by bringing hard work and technological innovation to a region bereft of modern economic success, Israel has made it possible for millions of Jews and millions of Arabs to live comfortably in the land, with standards of living that far surpass those of most of the world. He states that a “peace process” predicated on uprooting Israeli settlers is entirely counterproductive, flying in the face of regional history.

Frederic Leder is a retired oil company executive living in Westport and a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of the Ledger.

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