Review: The Israel Test, by George Gilder - The Objective Standard

The Israel Test, by George Gilder. Minneapolis: Richard Vigilante Books, 2009. 296 pp. $27.95 (cloth).


According to George Gilder, Israel’s defenders have failed to make a compelling case for the country’s right to exist—though not for lack of trying. Gilder cites, as one example, Alan Dershowitz, who has contributed two books offering “over thirty chapters of evidence against [anti-Israel] propaganda.”

Dershowitz cogently contests the proposition that Israel is a racist bastion of apartheid, a genocidal expansionist power, and a crypto-Nazi perpetrator of “massacres.” He ably refutes the verdict of the relevant UN committee that Israel is “the world’s primary violator of human rights” . . . [And he] even takes the trouble to answer charges of the ineffable Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as if the ruler were moved by legal niceties and resourceful argument (pp. 20–21).

But, although Gilder acknowledges that Dershowitz’s arguments refute the typical charges made against Israel, he says that this defensive posture is an all-too-typical mistake. “The central error of Israel’s defenders is to accept the framing of the debate by its enemies. . . . Locked in a debate over Israel’s alleged vices, they miss the salient truth running through the long history of anti-Semitism: Israel is hated above all for its virtues” (pp. 21–22).

For all its special features and extreme manifestations, anti-Semitism is a reflection of the hatred toward . . . capitalists that is visible . . . whenever an identifiable set of outsiders outperforms the rest of the population in an economy. This is true whether the offending excellence comes from the Kikuyu in Kenya, the Ibo and the Yoruba in Nigeria . . . [or] the over 30 million overseas Chinese [throughout] Southeast Asia (p. 36).

In The Israel Test, Gilder zeros in on both the source of Israel’s success and the source of hatred toward the nation, making a strong case for why the nation’s continued existence should be both supported and celebrated.

According to Gilder, the reason for Israel’s remarkable wealth and prosperity, particularly since the early 1990s, is that the nation has turned away from socialism and toward capitalism, accomplishing “the most overwhelming transformation in the history of economics” (p. 109).

In a decade, it went from being a nondescript laggard in the industrial world to become a luminous first. Today, on a per-capita basis, Israel far leads the world in research and technological creativity. . . . A 2008 survey of the world’s venture capitalists . . . showed that in six key fields—telecom, microchips, software, biopharmaceuticals, medical devices, and clean energy—Israel ranked second only to the United States in technological innovation. . . . Israel’s creativity now pervades many of the most powerful or popular new technologies, from personal computers to iPods, from the Internet to the medical center, from anti-missile defenses to the ascendant realms of “cloud” computing (pp. 109–11).

Gilder points out that, contrary to the belief of many, neither these achievements nor Israel’s concomitant rise in wealth were stolen from anyone. Gilder completely rejects what he calls the “zero sum vision of economics and life” (p. 6), the prevalent view that wealth is “stolen from the exploited poor” (p. 16) and that differences in wealth are “gaps” or “imbalances” that should be corrected by government (p. 59). According to Gilder, this view stems “from the belief that wealth inheres in things and material resources that can be seized and redistributed, rather than in the human minds and creations that thrive only in peace and freedom” (p. 14).

Gilder argues that Israel’s wealth was created and that capitalism “is a positive-sum game, based on an upward spiral of gains, with no essential limits to the creation of wealth” (p. 1). Under this system, he continues, “the genius and good fortune of some” is “a source of wealth and opportunity for all” (p. 3), and “the achievements of one group provide markets and opportunities for others” (p. 11). These opportunities, says Gilder, include life itself, and Israel deserves enormous credit on this count. Without the technological innovations made possible by capitalism—many of which were originated or crucially advanced in Israel—“we’d have needed about 85 earths to feed 6 billion people” (p. 239). Israel’s successes should be applauded, argues Gilder, because the Israelis have helped to make life itself possible for many, and to make a better quality of life possible for all. (Although Gilder demonstrates this with numerous examples, because his argument for the propriety of capitalism is utilitarian rather than egoistic, he fails to anchor his claims in objective morality.)

In regard to Israel’s tumultuous relationship with its rogue neighbors, Gilder rejects the idea that it “is within Israel’s power to choose peace” and that there is “a price it can pay that would finally and fully purchase the peace” (p. 221), because, he says, “the object of the [jihadists] has nothing to do with a few square miles of disputed land in the territories.”

The implication is that the Palestinians and their backers in the Arab world have waged jihad for decades, brought death and poverty and terror on their own land and people, and unceasingly pledged death to Israel and every Jew in its domains as a negotiating tactic in pursuit of a fractionally better real estate deal (p. 222).

According to Gilder, this idea is false, and the true goal of the jihadists (and of other anticapitalists) can be seen in their response to what he calls “the Israel test”—from which the book gets its title. This test gauges one’s views regarding wealth and achievement, and can be summarized in terms of a few basic questions:

What is your attitude toward people who excel you in the creation of wealth or in other accomplishment? Do you aspire to their excellence, or do you seethe at it? Do you admire and celebrate exceptional achievement, or do you impugn it and seek to tear it down? (pp. 3–4).

Gilder shows that the enemies of Israel are precisely those who would answer these questions in the negative: those who seek not success but rather the destruction of those who succeed. The goal of Israel’s enemies is not Israeli real estate or peace, but the death of Israel.

Gilder identifies and emphasizes the broader implications of this fact. These nihilists, he says, seek not only the destruction of Israel but the destruction of all prosperous nations; “the predicament of Israel is ultimately the predicament of world capitalism” (p. 244); “the Holocaust threat only begins with Israel” (p. 241); “if Israel is quelled or destroyed, we will be succumbing to forces targeting capitalism and freedom everywhere. We will allow a fatal triumph of the barbarian masses that may well end up demoralizing and destroying the United States as well” (p. 239); “if the United States, with its world-leading armaments, is incapable of defending Israel, it will prove unable to defend anything else” (p. 244).

In light of these truths, says Gilder, it is a grave mistake for Israel or the United States ever to negotiate with the barbarians.

Negotiators with illusions about their adversaries end up negotiating with themselves. Experts on business negotiation ordain that “whenever you start negotiating with yourself, you might as well give away the company.” This is what the Israelis have been doing for decades . . . (p. 231).

And the results of Israel’s negotiations, says Gilder, have been predictable. In “[communicating] to the Arabs that terror and aggression work,” the Israelis have given them incentive to continue both. “As a result, Israel gets neither peace [from its enemies] nor victory [over them]” (p. 193).

Quoting Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he praises as someone “who sees jihad as the single greatest threat to the West” and knows how to fight it (p. 210), Gilder relays an important point that America’s leaders have yet to fully grasp:

The first and most crucial thing to understand [about terrorism] . . . is that there is no international terrorism without the support of sovereign states. . . . Terrorists are not suspended in mid-air. They train, arm, and indoctrinate their killers from within safe havens in the territories provided by terrorist states (p. 217).

Gilder notes that “it was the total military defeat” of the governments in Japan and Germany that led to victory in World War II, and he argues that the “path to peace is not through negotiations but through [the] invincible rejection of terror,” which must include preemptive military action against states that sponsor the terrorism that plagues Israel and the West in general (p. 232).

The Israel Test is not without errors. In addition to the aforementioned utilitarian argument for capitalism, Gilder relays, without comment, Robert Aumann’s subjectivist definition of “rationality” as “the effective pursuit of your goals” and condones Aumann’s claim that “the suicide bombers are rational” because “they are getting their way” (p. 204). This is absurdly included in a book that quite effectively shows that the Israelis’ use of reason is the basic characteristic that sets them apart from the barbarians who seek their destruction. Equally absurd, Gilder quotes Aumann stating that Israel was created not 60 years ago but 3,600 years ago, when an angel blessed Jacob (pp. 202–3).

Despite these significant flaws, The Israel Test is worthy of both praise and wide readership—and not just by Israelis. In showing the world of values open to those nations that embrace freedom, and in demonstrating the nihilistic nature of the enemies of capitalism, Gilder’s book will be of value to anyone who would answer the questions in the Israel test positively.

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