[ Sunday, January 23, 2005 ]
Top American Jewish Zionist Banker Turned Israeli Sets Off Spat
Stanley Fischer, who is a Jewish Zionist and speaks reasonably good Hebrew, is making a significant financial sacrifice to make aliyah, the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel that literally means a rising up, or ascent.
Straight FROM THE IHT
Politics enliven debate over choice of American economist
JERUSALEM Stanley Fischer, a widely respected American
economist and banker, has agreed to leave the United States
and a job as a vice chairman of Citigroup to become
governor of the Bank of Israel, taking Israeli citizenship
in the process.
Does that make Israelis proud? Do not be so sure. Fischer's
appointment, like everything here, has been caught up in
poitics. He has also been subject to some Israelis' deep
ambivalence about Israel's relationship to Jews abroad.
On one hand, Israel wants to be a light unto the nations
and attract the best and brightest Jews from around the
world - the Zionist dream of Theodor Herzl. Fischer, who is
a Zionist and speaks reasonably good Hebrew, is making a
significant financial sacrifice to make aliyah, the Hebrew
term for immigration to Israel that literally means a
rising up, or ascent.
On the other hand, some Israelis resent that the leader of
one of its most important institutions was recruited
abroad, someone who may have distinguished himself in a
much bigger pool but has not been through the army or the
other various trials of Israeli life.
Ari Shavit, a writer for the daily Haaretz, went so far as
to call Fischer's appointment morally unacceptable no
matter how fine an economist he was. "A person cannot shape
the destiny of a community of which he has not been a part
until now," Shavit wrote.
It is bad enough, Shavit wrote, that the largest private
bank in Israel is owned "by a cruise-ship heiress from
Florida," Shari Arison, chairwoman of Arison Holdings. "The
possibility that the government bank will now be handed
over to a guest governor from Manhattan is simply
The tempest is partly about politics and economic policy.
Fischer, who declined an interview for this article, was
chosen at the last minute in a deal between Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon and his finance minister and rival within the
Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has been pushing the economy away from its
socialist roots, confronting unions and government
ministries, and trying to revise the tax system.
Fischer, who has many years of experience at the World Bank
and the International Monetary Fund, is considered an
advocate of opening markets and fostering economic
competition. He is perhaps best known for guiding the fund
during the Asian and Russian financial collapses in 1997
"Fischer has a very liberal, capitalist and nonsocialist
agenda," said Omer Moav, a senior fellow at the Shalem
Center and a senior lecturer in economics at Hebrew
University."He believes in markets, small government and that people
should work for their living. That's why Netanyahu brought
him in," he added.
So those who dislike Netanyahu and his policies, which
includes a significant part of the political center and the
left in Israel, do not much like the fact of Fischer,
either, who despite his personal politics - he has been a
supporter of the dovish Peace Now movement - will bring
further international standing and credibility to one side
of a domestic policy battle. To shoot at Fischer, then, is
to shoot at Netanyahu.
Of course there are those, including journalists of various
stripes, who were pushing their own choices and found
reasons to criticize an outside choice.
For Shlomo Avineri, an internationally renowned political
philosopher and former Foreign Ministry official, the fuss
is reflective of a deeper Israeli ambivalence toward
successful Jews in the rest of the world, who are a source
of both pride and resentment.
"Israel wants aliyah, immigration, and we always ask why
don't thousands of American academics come here," Avineri
said. "But on the other hand, they will take our jobs. In
general, Israel hasn't attracted a lot of top-drawer
immigrants. We've been the country of refuge, which takes
in the poor or the downtrodden, from North Africa or Iraq
or the Soviet Union, and gives them room in our house.
"And then suddenly someone comes to rule the natives, and
the relationship is reversed," he said. "Israelis are not
used to this."
Avinoam Bar-Yosef, who directs the Jewish People Policy
Planning Institute, which studies the Diaspora, said:
"Israel's main asset is the Jewish brain and the support of
the Jewish world. To our sorrow, the majority of Jews in
the world don't live here, and at the top of our agenda is
to attract the best and brightest to join us."
Imagine, he said, if Steven Spielberg came to Israel, or
Henry Kissinger. "It would be like living in the days of
the Messiah," he said.
Some of the complaints about Fischer stem from professional
frustration and others come from people with financial
interests, who may find it harder to call a prominent
stranger to lobby him.
"And of course others say to live in Israel is a burden,"
Bar-Yosef said. "You pay a price to live here. You go
through the army. And you don't need to bring stars from
outside who haven't been through the same experience."
Somehow, he said, Israel understands the need for imports
in sports. Israeli basketball, for instance, would not be
the same without them, and Israel's Olympic team has been
greatly strengthened by immigrants from the former Soviet
art [7:15 PM]