The blue-and-white lie

Dudu Topaz donned a “Blue-and-White” campaign T-shirt for his Independence Day television special and played the pitch man. “So I’m in the supermarket,” he said, looking over at Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik, “and I see two products on the shelf – one foreign, and one Israeli. I buy the Israeli one…”

“And hundreds of Israeli jobs are saved,” Itzik declared. “It’s that simple.”

Simple? Hardly.

The problem of Israel’s 256,000 unemployed is far more complicated than the campaign run by Itzik and the Manufacturers Association makes it out to be. What Itzik doesn’t mention is that an unofficial boycott of foreign products – which is the essence of this drive – will certainly displace workers involved in the sales of those products. And there are thousands of people in fields such as hi-tech who will remain unemployed no matter how many Israeli goods are sold. But even those who could be helped by this effort will ultimately suffer its undesirable side effects.

Combatting the preference for cheaper, higher-quality foreign goods inevitably means imposing tariffs to make them less competitive. That path leads to policy disasters such as England’s corn laws, which protected domestic produce from cheaper foreign competition. The burden on consumers nearly strangled Britain’s economy, “saving” jobs in the short run but in the long run costing thousands their daily bread. 

here’s also the possibility of a backlash. India, for example, may rightly wonder why Itzik signed a trade deal with it in January if she’s only interested in “blue-and-white” products. The European Union, which is beginning to reverse the damage caused by its past protectionist policies, will not be impressed either. If other countries were to institute the measures implicit in this campaign, Israeli companies with thriving foreign sales but relatively minor domestic markets, such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Elbit Systems, could suffer terribly.

Baruch Leshem of the Industry and Trade Ministry who is leading the campaign, insists the campaign is consistent with free market ideals. He says the ministry will not propose taxes be levied on foreign products in order to make Israeli goods more attractive to consumers. It is simply “suggesting,” he stresses, that we all buy Israeli products whenever possible.

Leshem says the current flood of firings can be stanched if sales of Israeli product increase 20 percent as a result of the campaign. While the ministry says it opposes open intervention in the market, that’s a huge figure to reach with a mere “suggestion.”

The real question that must be addressed by any effort to improve the economy is this – how does this plan make Israeli firms more competitive?  On this score, the “blue-and-white” campaign draws a blank. It’s an initiative that depends on good intentions rather than good ideas.

“This campaign won’t contribute a thing – certainly not jobs,” says Robi Nathanson, chairman of the Israel Institute for Economic and Social Research. “It contradicts all the progressive steps necessary to improve the economy and create jobs.”  That the economy can be saved by patriotic sentiment alone is “so funny that it doesn’t move anyone,” Nathanson says. “It’s a ridiculous 1940s-1950s mentality reminiscent of the time when the Israeli economy had to be created.”

The “Only Israeli for me” refrain smacks of anti-globalization, too, Nathanson says. He claims a product’s “nationality” is meaningless when “cotton is grown in Egypt, the fibers are woven in Thailand, the fabric is tailored in Italy, and the finished garment is sold in Israel.” Some argue the government should actually encourage Israelis to buy superior foreign goods.

“Pressure to compete in the world market will ultimately make Israeli manufacturers better,” says Daniel Doron, director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress. Attempts to impose market conditions in the name of patriotism make our companies slothful, he cautions; they prevent the innovation and prowess developed by firms that have to confront competitors. Also, it limits freedom. “The consumer must be the one to decide [which products he prefers], not the government,” Doron asserts.

The definition of “Blue-and-White” products is becoming ever fuzzier – so much so that some contend the notion of a “Blue-and-White company” is more important. Joseph Shostak, director-general of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce (FICC), points out that apparel firm Delta Textiles may have moved its manufacturing operations to Egypt, but its profits remain in Israel. And when Castro moved its facilities to the Far East, it was able to vastly expand its domestic retail network, which employ hundreds of Israelis.

Companies such as Strauss and Osem simply repackage many foreign products. If the “Only Israeli for me” concept were taken to its logical conclusion, we’d have to stop buying many of their products as well. Several labor organizations have already begun to clamor for increased protection.

“There are no limits to the demands” of Israel-only production, Shostak says, and that simply isn’t feasible.  So far, most businessmen aren’t getting caught up in the jingoist fervor.  “No manufacturer would blame someone for buying cheap foreign raw materials instead of more expensive or lower quality Israeli raw materials, because he is making an economic choice,” he explains. “In the end, he has to consider the consumer.”

In their race for public attention, Itzik and the Manufacturers Association have failed to do just that. Fortunately, someone does have consumers in mind. When Itzik approached the FICC to get top businessmen on the bandwagon, Shostak says, the major marketing chains bristled at the campaign. They know the key to prosperity lies elsewhere.

“What is necessary [to strengthen the economy] is to have an open, global, competitive market. Only then will Israeli products have lower prices and higher quality,” asserts Shostak.

In the end, he concludes, that is more important than patriotism, and more sensible.

“The consumer is smarter than that.”


Baseball and the Haggada

With the crunch of matza about to meet the crack of the bat in baseball parks across America, it’s natural to reflect on the connection between the pasttimes. It’s no coincidence that the baseball season begins at Pessah, for the “rite of spring” is in essence Jewish. The roots of the game are intertwined with the very origins of our people.

Pharaoh got the ball rolling in Egypt. He had the best baseball team around, and the best contract, too – a lifetime deal with perks that would make Barry Bonds envious.

For years, no one could beat Pharaoh’s team, partly because they always had to play at his custom-built stadium, The Pyramid. With home-field advantage, Pharaoh and his gang were practically invincible.

Life was less rosy for the Israelites. They had taken affront at having to provide the (non-unionized) labor behind “The House That Pharaoh Built,” and there was discrimination to contend with, too. Not only were they not allowed to watch the Egyptians, but the Israelites weren’t even allowed to play baseball amongst themselves.

So the Israelites decided they’d had enough of Egypt. That’s where Moses came in. The man had a vision, and with it, a plan to turn the tide on Pharaoh. Moses walked right up to Pharaoh and challenged him and his team to a game of baseball. The stakes: the Israelites’ freedom. On a whim, Pharaoh agreed.

Putting an Israelite team together was no easy task. Teaching a rag-tag bunch of Israelites how to play the game – how the servants pitch the ball to the “batterers,” and how to play “out in the fields” – was like making bricks without straw. Moses was one of only a few Israelites with knowledge of the game. He had shown promise in his youth by “striking down” an Egyptian batterer, but had only a quiet career in the burning bush leagues thereafter.

It would take a miracle to lead the Hammering Hebrews past Egypt.

On the day of the game, Egyptians filled the stands with the red jerseys of their favorite team. Pharaoh and his gang were full of swagger, and the Israelites were full of fear.

Nahshon Ben-Aminadav was brave enough to bat first for the Israelites, and while he only managed a bloop single, his meager success was enough to give hope to his teammates. When God – the Israelites’ manager – came down to supervise, their confidence grew significantly.

Soon enough, things started going wrong for Egypt. Just before their turn to bat, they found the water in their bullpen well had turned to blood; the Israelites’ well, though, was sparkling with clear mineral water.  In the second inning, frogs invaded Egypt’s dugout, and in the third, lice verily plagued the Reds. When wild animals stormed the stands in the fourth inning, Pharaoh almost called off the game.

George Brit hit a home run for the Israelites – and he was so excited that, when he reached home plate, he dipped twice.  The home run was called off, though, when the Egyptians pointed out that Brit had used too much pine tar on his staff of wood.  It was still a close contest in the fifth inning when Egypt’s mascot, a live goat, suddenly died. And Egypt’s players had fits with the boils they developed in the sixth inning.

The Israelites improved as the game wore on, thanks to God’s clever technique of giving them what He called “signs.” “These will show the difference between My people and the people of Egypt,” He explained.

Egypt was about to mount a rally in the seventh when fiery hail caused a temporary delay in the action. That’s when Pharaoh instituted the seventh-inning kvetch.

“I’d rather let you guys go than suffer any more of this,” Pharaoh told Moses. But he quickly changed his mind as soon as the hail let up.

Locusts swarmed in and devoured the outfield grass during the eighth inning, but the well-mown lawn was actually an improvement. Then, as the ninth inning continued well into the night, a heavy and palpable darkness enveloped the stadium. Both sides were exhausted. The Egyptians were willing to call a draw, but by then Pharaoh had taken the game personally. He vowed to see it through to the very end.

With two outs and the Israelites down by one run in the tenth inning, Moses walked up to the batterer’s box. The tension was high, as everyone knew it would all come down to this. The Israelites’ freedom was on the line. An aged Moses stretched out his staff and knocked a soft liner just over the infield. It looked like Egypt would make an easy catch to end the game, but Moses raised his arms and the outfielders parted to let it pass…

So, with Moses on first base, the Israelites still had a chance. But who would bat?  Suddenly, a great and booming voice came from the Israelite dugout as God grabbed a staff of His own.

“I will bat!” He declared. “I will smite Egypt’s first ball. I, and not a designated hitter. I, and not a hot prospect. I, and not a free agent!”

With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God did indeed smite the first ball thrown to Him, scoring the winning runs and securing freedom for the whole Israelite nation.

Afterward, He was both modest and gracious.

“I’d just like to thank Myself for giving Me the strength and the opportunity to come in here and show the whole world what I can do,” God said.  He also recalled His teammates. “These guys are great. This is the best bunch of people I’ve ever played with,” He said.

The praise overwhelmed Moses’s brother Aharon, who fell on his face and wept. “Coming from Him, that means a lot. I mean, He’s played on some of the most incredible teams ever: with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… Wow.”

While God spoke of plans to build the Israelites a stadium of their own, Moses summed up the team’s feeling.  “It was destiny,” he exclaimed. “No one gave us respect, but we held our heads high. They said we couldn’t do it, that no one had ever won in Egypt – and even I was skeptical at first. I just told the team that we’ve got to believe.”

As the Israelites turned to watch the red sea of Egyptians departing, they did believe. They truly believed.

Every year since, around Pessah time, the beginning of the baseball season commemorates that amazing event.