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The Curse of Plenty
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The Curse of Plenty

Why Israel wasn't blessed with an abundance of oil.


Jews used to joke in a semi-serious sigh, if only Moses would've had a better sense of direction and turned right instead of left, we could have been heirs to all those precious oilfields in the Middle East. Instead we got Israel, and the most even God could say about it is that it's a land flowing with milk and honey.

If we are really God's chosen people, why did He allot the most valuable natural resources to our neighbors? Why did the Arabs get the oil while we got stuck with so much sand and desert?

It's a puzzle that has perplexed us for years. But thanks to some remarkable findings by economists and social scientists, we've discovered an answer: it was divine providence that protected us from what Richard Auty labels “the curse of natural resources.”

There is a link between abundance of natural resources and poor economic development.

It seems, as a great deal of research now proves, countries rich in natural resources bear a burden that ends up stifling real growth and prosperity for its people. As counter intuitive as it may seem, there is a link between abundance of natural resources and poor economic development. Petroleum producing countries are an excellent example. From 1965 to 1998 gross national product per capita in OPEC countries decreased on average by 1.3% while in the rest of the developing world per capita growth was on average 2.2%.

It is precisely in the countries that are beneficiaries of the largest resources that poverty and misery reign as war and violence run rampant. Oxford professor and World Bank economist Paul Collier has calculated the probability of civil war in such countries. His conclusion is that in a country that doesn't dispose of substantial natural resources, the risk is only as high as a half-percent. In countries that depend mainly on natural resources, on the other hand, the probability rises to 23 percent. Raw materials are "the most significant risk factor" for a community, according to Collier -- more important than historical, geographic or ethnic factors.

Terry Lynn Karl, a political science professor at Stanford University and the author of The Paradox of Plenty shows how the populations of poor countries like Nigeria often get poorer after oil is discovered and a tiny elite benefits. “Countries with a history of conflict,” he writes, “have perverse effects from mineral wealth -- more war, more corruption, less democracy and more inequality.”

In the past few weeks commentators have discussed the effects of this “curse of plenty” as it looms in the future for Afghanistan. Taking everyone by surprise it's just been discovered that there is approximately a $1 trillion worth of minerals beneath this seeming wasteland. So what does this mean for the country and its inhabitants? Many experts in third world resource politics argue that almost certainly it portends only bad things to come. Warlords and tribal chieftains will almost surely now have reason to fight for many decades to come because the treasures of victory are so enticing. A land flowing with titanium is not destined for tranquility.

A land flowing with titanium is not destined for tranquility.

And it isn't only conflict over newfound wealth that explains why a surfeit of natural resources so often ends up being a curse instead of a blessing. When countries have riches readily available just for the taking under their feet they are not really motivated to make maximum use of their brains. Ingenuity is the product of need; resourcefulness, initiative and inventiveness are the ways people who have to struggle for prosperity grow to greatness.

Countries are a lot like people. Children born into extreme wealth, never having had to exert themselves to be surrounded by luxury, all too often end up as nonproductive playboys who contribute nothing to the world round about them. They live life as parasites, reaping the benefits of unearned riches without feeling the need to make any personal payments or contributions in return. Small wonder that two of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have made clear they want to give away most of their fortunes during their lifetime so that they do not burden their children with what they've called “the curse of having too much.”

So too, countries whose gifts of natural resources are so plentiful that not much is expected of its inhabitants don't encourage their people to develop as productive human beings. Their wealth dooms them to human stagnation. Easy money creates lazy people. Affluence without effort is a surefire recipe for the decline of a people, a culture and a civilization.

Just imagine if in 1948 Jews would have come to a land welcoming them with the oil reserves of their neighboring Saudi Arabia. We would never have seen the creation of the country that is a world leader in so many areas of scientific achievement, of medical breakthroughs, of pioneering accomplishments that are nothing short of miraculous. Without oil, Israelis realized that they had to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows -- and their brows of course were the place they kept their brains.


That's why, in retrospect, the greatest blessing of Israel is that it wasn't cursed with an overabundance of resources that would make intelligence and brainpower unnecessary. All God chose to give us were milk and honey. Not because these are the two most valuable items in the world but because they are the metaphors for the true blessings of life.

Milk is the first food we imbibed from our mothers. It came as an expression of the greatest love possible, a gift of self. And what it gave us that made it so precious was that it fulfilled our most basic wants. As a child every one of us was content with milk. Only as we grew older did we confuse greed with need. God gave us a land “flowing with milk” to remind us that out of his great love He made sure we wouldn't ever be deprived of what is really essential for our well-being.

And then God made the Promised Land grant his people the gift of abundant honey -- the symbol of sweetness that makes life worth living. Material blessings don't necessarily bring joy. Millions of dollars don't automatically assure blissful lives. The land of Israel however was granted the divine ability to make its inhabitants happy.

Human beings need lives of meaning. Sweet lives are the result of spiritual fulfillment. So God promises us that he will nurse us with the milk of his mother love and sustain us with the honeyed sweetness of his constant care and concern.

And who wouldn't trade that for all the oil in the world?

July 3, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 27

(27) Dr Simcha Baker, November 12, 2011 5:39 PM

Oil in Israel - Geology saya 'YES' and a lot of it!!

We should be careful about utilizing all of HASHEM's blessings. Just like milk and honey, petroleum is a commodity that is inherently good, but can be spoiled if improperly handled. A careful and comprehensive geological study of Israel on a regional basis shows a high potential for vast accumulations of petroleum (besides the offshore natural gas). I hope to be in a position shortly to test these identified trends and discover another treasure for Israel, besides 'milk and honey'.

(26) Pleasant, August 12, 2010 10:36 PM

maybe it's more like:

Every vehicle in Israel should be environment friendly, to set an example. Imagine it: every single Israeli drives a tesla vehicle or one of those micro-hydro-electric deals. All the other nations will be clamoring to catch up. I can hear it now, "how dare those israelis out-green us?!)" And by-by go terrorist dollars, polution, oceanic pollution, etc.

(25) Grant, July 10, 2010 2:02 AM

Abundance is a blessing if given the opportunity

This is the same rationalization that Europeans used to explain their world domination because of the harsh conditions they came from-cold climate, etc. which forced them to adapt and think. The reality of their dominance was that they simply had better weaponry than the rest of the globe. They dominated other cultures, subdued and divided them and stole their abundant resources. That's why you can take the example of a country like Nigeria who has to this day systematic corruption by a tiny elite that was left by the British Empire and compare it to Norway. Norway's economy is doing quite well and is actually doing better than Sweden now (traditionally the stronger economy of Scandinavia) because of oil. Being blessed with natural resources doesn't create laziness it actually does quite the opposite as it allows it's population to thrive if given the opportunity to be left alone. When you look at the "greatest" civilizations on this planet all have come from warm climates with abundant resources Egypt and it's fertile valley, Greece, Rome, the Inca, the Maya and the rest of Meso-America, China... If Israel was blessed with an abundance of oil it too would thrive (if left alone and not invaded by outside powers) just like Norway currently is. Your point on the two richest men in the world is off base. If you really look at the richest people on the globe they are rich because they have inherited their wealth not because they worked hard. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are rarities the vast majority are wealthy because they are in the Lucky Sperm Club. It's quite easy to make money when you have a lot to start with. Look at the list by Forbes of the world's billionaires and tell me what percentage are actually self-made as opposed to ones that inherit wealth and you will probably find that 90-95% are Lucky Sperm Clubbers.

(24) Yehudis, July 8, 2010 6:12 PM

Israel has natural resources

In parshas V'Zos Ha'Bracha it enumerates the natural resources and wealth that the Land of Israel contains. And Israel gave away its oil fields in Sinai to our murderers in the Camp David Accords.

(23) Miriam, July 7, 2010 8:15 PM

Poweful Article.

B"H G-d know what He is doing. Let's take the blessing of Milk and Honey into our everyday lifes: at work, at home, everywhere. Let's remember The Milk and Honey Blessing in every dificul situation, knowing that G-d is there with us nurturing and showing us to chose to be happy (joyful) all the time.

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