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BRW Rich List – nothing to kvell over.

June 21, 2009 – 10:37 am23 Comments

By Anthony Frosh and Rachel Sacks-Davis

One thing that gets our goat is when people in the Jewish community kvell over the over-representation of Jews in the BRW rich list.   Google BRW and AJN, and you will see that the AJN run a story on this every single year.  Here is the link to the most recent one.

It’s bad enough that they report the number of Jews who are extremely wealthy (which promotes a mildly negative stereotype – that all Jews are rich); but they have to report it in such a kveln manner, that it promotes a more pernicious stereotype – that Jews are obsessed with money!

In all seriousness, we are not just concerned that it looks bad to outsiders (although it does!); but really, is the fact that some people from your ethnic group have achieved extreme wealth something to take naches from? If so, then a serious values check is in order.

Let us be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being wealthy, and the success of many Jews in business is nothing to be ashamed of.  We also recognise that both the Jewish and wider community benefit from the philanthropic endeavours that many of these wealthy individuals undertake.

Stories about philanthropy would be appropriate. However, when the story is headlined “Wealthy Australian Jews score a rich list trifecta” it sounds like barracking sports journalism where Jews are the team, and wealth is the race.

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23 Comments »

  • michael says:

    There you go again looking at further ways to criticize Jews just because you are paranoid about how Jews are portrayed , you are part of the problem by making an issue of it.

    Could it be that Jews are not obsessed with money but obsessed with being successful with anything they do whether it be the most successful Businessperson the most successful Scientist and in many cases Money comes with success .

    Instead of being so paranoid of all those Jew haters that will find plenty of reasons to hate Jews including using stereo typing in their anti Semitic arsenal be proud that so many Jews contribute much more money than any other ethnic minority to local charities and the Arts in Australia .

    Perhaps you would prefer for Jews instead of being overrepresented in the wealth stakes to be overrepresented in receiving social security benefits like some other ethnic minorities?

  • michael says:

    Oh yeah I forgot what a Bloody Chutzpah who do you think financially supports the Academics at the Jewish studies Department at Monash , yep you guessed it the Jewish communities wealthiest families all those Money hungry Jews…

  • frochel says:

    Michael,

    It looks to us as if you just read the headline and first paragraph, and then impatiently elected to harangue us with irrelevant and vitriolic comments.
    If you had bothered to read our entire post (which wasn’t very long by the way!), you would have read the following:

    “Let us be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being wealthy, and the success of many Jews in business is nothing to be ashamed of. We also recognise that both the Jewish and wider community benefit from the philanthropic endeavours that many of these wealthy individuals undertake.”

    Perhaps we should have put this in bold font in the first place, so that less observant readers would have been more likely to process it.

    To repeat what we said in the original post, we welcome media coverage of philanthropy.

  • frochel says:

    Michael,

    For what we naively hope will be the final time, we are stating categorically that no writers on this blog are employees of Monash University.

    However, in the interests of fair disclosure, let us spell out Frochel’s connections with Monash University.

    Frochel is composed of two people. One is enrolled in a postgraduate degree in public health at Monash. The other’s only contact with Monash University is to play water polo against them.

  • michael says:

    My above response is to your self serving comments below …you are the one that is being selective..

    One thing that gets our goat is when people in the Jewish community kvell over the over-representation of Jews in the BRW rich list. Google BRW and AJN, and you will see that the AJN run a story on this every single year. Here is the link to the most recent one:

    http://www.ajn.com.au/news/news.asp?pgID=7523

    It’s bad enough that they report the number of Jews who are extremely wealthy (which promotes a mildly negative stereotype – that all Jews are rich); but they have to report it in such a kveln manner, that it promotes a more pernicious stereotype – that Jews are obsessed with money!

    In all seriousness, we are not just concerned that it looks bad to outsiders (although it does!); but really, is the fact that some people from your ethnic group have achieved extreme wealth something to take naches from? If so, then a serious values check is in order.

  • David S says:

    Do me a favour, Michael. it’s the values that are the issues. Not a paranoid fear of what others think (although that can never be forgotten). What is being wealthy a symbol of? I doubt it is necessarily a symbol of great achievment in anything except the ability to make money. Mazel tov – some Jews have the ability to make a lot of money. Lots don;t – does that make them less succesful or less brilliant?

    A lot more have other abilities, might contribute to the world in different ways, and are not, nor do expect to be, celebrated. The focus on the rich list seems to me to be a problem with an over keeness to praise some pretty superficial acheivments in the community.

    I think that it is probably indicative of Australian society, rather than exclusively the leaders of the community, in that wealth is understood as a desireable acheivment in itself in much of Australia. Nonetheless, the AJN reporting this year after year in such an obsequious manner is pretty sad, and as Frochel says, suggests a major problem with values.

  • After the initial flurry of comments, it seems that your issue is with the reporting of this event by the Jewish News, a privately-owned newspaper (and no-one would ever accuse them of communal leadership).

    Surely the best forum to raise this would be either through their letters page, or by directly contacting the editor, and to do so in a more timely fashion, i.e. in the week following the actual story?

  • frochel says:

    David S,

    You’ve summed up our sentiments better than we have.

    David Werdiger,

    Our issue is not just with the AJN, but with attitudes that exist in some sectors of the community. The AJN’s coverage is arguably as much symptomatic of the issue as it is causal.

    We are interested in exploring the issue with readers of this blog, which is why we posted the story here, rather than in the letters pages of the AJN.

  • Interesting issue: does the AJN reflect Jewish communal attitudes? Many people would say “no”. They are ultimately in the business of selling news(papers). It is reasonable for them to report the “Jewish angle” on the BRW list, like they would on any other big news story. I fully agree that the headline this year was sensationalist @$(*&@#, and if anything reaffirmed the AJN’s desire to sell newspapers.

    However, nothing Frochel or David S has said contains any evidence that these are prevailing attitudes in our community.

  • frochel says:

    Hi David W,

    We would agree that these are not attitudes held by the majority of our community. The extent that these attitudes exist in the community will naturally differ within different sectors of the community. Evidence for the existence of these attitudes comes from our personal anecdotal experience. Also, by your own account, the AJN runs these stories in order to sell more newspapers. If they do run these stories for that reason (although we are not aware if the AJN does any meaningful market research), then this suggests that these stories do appeal at least to some segments of their audience.

    Part of the reason for our original post was to give people a forum for expressing their attitudes as they relate to this issue.

    We accept your opinion that it is reasonable for the AJN to report a Jewish angle on a story, but we would prefer that it was done in a more mature fashion (e.g. a story about the rise of an individual from refugee to mogul; or even more interestingly, a genuine examination of the reasons for Jewish over-representation). Currently, it looks less like quality journalism, and more like quality kveln.

  • sensiblejew says:

    David S, hi and if we haven’t welcomed you already, welcome. Great comment! I agree about the pernicious tendency to equate wealth with achievement.

  • Disinterested Observer says:

    The framing of the article is somewhat odd since it emerges that it was only the huge losses by James Packer and Andrew Forrest that led to the “trifecta” anyway.

  • Distant relative says:

    The story of the Jewish “trifecta” on the BRW list is, in and of itself, an amazing news story, without parallel anywhere in the world. The general press is probably loath to report on the “ethnicity” of the top three, lest they be accused of antisemitism, but the ajn, one assumes, is under no such constraints. I don’t think there is any fault in “kvelling” over such an achievement, just as one should be rightly proud of Jews commanding a list, say, of notable scientists, prize-winning authors or ground-breaking social workers.
    The more pertinent question for the community is, I believe – why it has failed to spawn a list of “over-achievers” in other fields, such as the arts or academia, for example – that is in any way comparable to the money-making BRW list.

  • Frochel says:

    Distant Relative,

    Thank you for you post. We agree that the story of the “Jewish trifecta” may be interest; but this requires it to be reported in an interesting way. As we have said in a previous comment, it would make for an interesting article if there were a “genuine examination of the reasons for Jewish over-representation” in the BRW list. However, we do not agree that kveln is interesting nor do we agree that it is appropriate. Accumulating wealth is not a virtue in itself. Doing something worthwhile with that wealth (and these many of these extremely wealthy people may well do that) is.

    We also would query your assumption that Jews are not over represented in the arts and academia etc. Achievement in these areas is more difficult to quantify as there are less objective measures of success in the arts and academia. Just as an example (and we really don’t mean to kvell here), we noticed in our university studies that a very high proportion of the text books and notable journal articles were authored by Jews.

    Thanks again for your interesting comments, and we hope you will continue to provide your insights on this blog.

  • Distant relative says:

    I submit – with no proof whatsoever – that if you compare, say, the achievements of US Jewry with those of Australian Jewry, you will find the former well-represented in a much, much wider range of fields than Australian Jews. There are many good historical reasons for this difference, but the fact remains that Australian Jewry’s achievements in money-making are extraordinary not only in comparison to other ethnic groups in Australia but also to its achievements in any other field.
    And good luck and much success with your interesting blog.

  • mark says:

    In respect of this post, I think your airing on the side of paranoia.
    I am the first to admit that the Jewish leadership has much to answer for in it’s PR endeavors. Often different so called “representative leaders” go in with a sledgehammer in response to criticism when a feather would be more appropriate. The sledgehammer usually exacerbates the problem.
    The way the Maccabi and Hannan Ashwari incidents were handled in the media also left a lot to be desired.
    That aside, in respect of this story the AJN is right IMO to report it the way it has. Put simply we are a community that represents around .5 – .75% of the Australian population and according to BRW Jewish people make up the top 3 richest people in the land. We also, according to BRW, represent around 10 or 11 of the top 20 richest people in Australia. We also score very highly on the richest family lists. That is quite an extraordinary level or representation given our very small population and as such warrants a story on the issue. Does that mean we can’t also mention endeavors in other areas be they Science, Sport Arts, Philanthropy etc…of course not. But to simply avoid it and prefer it was kept under wraps or tip toe around the issue which appears to be what your post is indicating, (although paragraph 3 and 4 appear to somewhat contradict each other) starts to show some of the paranoia that has gripped our people for centuries. I also think we can expect the outside community to have reached a slightly more mature state than Europe 1933. If they haven’t then it’s our role to educate them, not hide under the sheets.

  • sensiblejew says:

    Hi Mark, and welcome.

    This post was written by Frochel, so I will let them answer the substance of your comment.

    From my own perspective, while the kveln is not nearly as egregious as the other PR blunders you mention, it is still problematic. Again, speaking for myself only, I see it as much less of an issue of what the general public’s perception of us is, than the atmosphere we create within the community.

  • Frochel says:

    Distant Relative,

    Thank you again for your comments. We don’t think that business is the only field in which Australian Jews have excelled – we think that you would find that Jewish Australians are also very much over-represented amongst leading medical clinicians and lawyers. However, we agree with you that in comparison to the US, Jews are not as well represented in the arts and academia in Australia. Our best guess for the reasons behind the differences between the US and Australian Jewish communities is that the Australian Jewish community is largely a post-WWII immigrant community whilst the American Jewish community is more of a fin de siecle community. A large proportion of the Jews who have risen to prominence in business, medicine and law in Australia are first or second generation refugees, which we believe explains the proclivity toward fields with high income potential. We would imagine that this will change over the coming generations. Furthermore, we wouldn’t be surprised to find that the career profiles of the American Jewish community in the first half of the twentieth century were more similar to those of the Australian Jewish community today.

    We’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  • Distant relative says:

    I agree, up to a point, and that is why I cited “valid” historic reasons. I also believe that the fact that so many immigrants to Australia were Holocaust survivors plays a role in this issue as well, for it is a well-known fact that many of the survivors all over the world were especially driven and motivated to “make good”, first and foremost by achieving material wealth.
    Nonetheless, I wonder whether these expalnations are a bit too pat. I have a friend who once told me about a job fair they attended, I think it was at Yavneh or perhaps another high school, in Melbourne. The line awaiting to hear about lawyering/doctoring/accounting ran from here to eternity, while the line seeing to learn about psychology/journalism/social work etc was conspicuous in its absence. When asked, the students in the longer line were unanimous in explaining that a)the latter professions don’t pay and b)their parents wouldn’t allow them to take them up anyway. So is it all history, or are there other factors at play here?

  • Frochel says:

    Distant Relative,

    You raise an interesting question. We think that you are probably right that there are more factors involved. Some of our theories include:

    (1) Cultural context theory: Some of the differences in career profiles of Australian and American Jewry can be explained by the different Australian and American contexts. Academia carries much more esteem in America, and both academia and the arts are far better funded in America. Not only does this make these careers more attractive to American Jews than Australian Jews, but some of the Australian Jews who do pursue these careers emigrate.

    (2) Critical mass theory: Traditionally, a significant part of Jewish business success has been attributed to the utility of the Jewish social network as a business network. It would seem logical that in a very small community (<1000) that this would be an insignificant factor. However, it may also be the case that in a very large community such as the Jewish community in America, the Jewish social network is less salient as the large size of the community diminishes the sense of community. Perhaps the sizes of the Jewish communities in Melbourne and Sydney (40K-50K each) are perfect for facilitating Jewish business networks.

    (3) Community structure theory: Part of the perceived difference between the American and Australian communities is due to differences in who identifies strongly / is perceived to be a Jew. In Australia, for whatever reason (and perhaps this also needs to be explained – we may deal with this in a future post), although there are many Jews who pursue careers outside of the traditional Australian Jewish career trajectories these Jews seem to dwell at the periphery rather than the centre of Australian Jewry. They are less well represented at Jewish private schools (explaining their absence in the career queues in your example), and don’t seem to identify as strongly as Jewish. Here we would point out that of the left wing Australian public intellectuals a significant proportion is Jewish – for example, Robert Manne and Peter Singer.

    None of these theories is evidence-based and we would be interested in hearing your thoughts on any of these.

  • Distant Relative says:

    All of you’re theories are worth exploring. One of the obvious differences between Australian Jewry and American Jewry, of course, is that the former is in Australia and the latter is in America, and perhaps some of the differences reflect the general contrast between the two countries. But I still go by the Holocaust survivor theory, and perhaps differences can be found the makeup of the immigration to the two countries. I wonder whether you believe that in second or third generation Australian Jews there is a movement away from business and towards less lucrative endeavours, or whether it is perpetuating itself?

  • frochel says:

    Hi Distant Relative,

    Firstly, we agree with you that the most important causal influence is the post-Shoah factor already discussed. It is an interesting question that you raise about later generations. Our feeling is that in Australia in the first decades after WWII, when guys like Pratt and Lowy started their incredible rise to affluence, the general Australian community was much less interested and knowledgeable about business and investment than they are today. This isn’t to take anything away from those guys, they were/are obviously extremely good businessmen.

    Nevertheless, our feeling is that back in the 1950s, the average Australian wasn’t owning any investment properties, and taking out margin loans to buy shares etc. Today, acquiring investment properties and a large stock portfolio is somewhat of an obsession for a significant sector of the Australian population. In the first decade after WWII, Jewish refugees from Europe, arrived in Australia with their business nous, where land was comparatively much less expensive than it was today, and in an era before globalization. As a result of this, they where able to be highly successful in the Australian business landscape.

    We feel today that the business and investment environment in Australia is far more competitive than it used to be. As an example, there are very few metziahs to be had in the Australian property market these days, as every property sold is done so in a very competitive marketplace. My (speaking as one half of Frochel) Grandfather, who came to Australia in the early 1950s, has told how in Perth the government was practically giving land away back then (or at least providing interest-free, deposit-free loans for people to take up opportunities at land releases). Globalisation is also an issue. As an example, a lot of Jews arriving after WWII started up small local factories making shoes, textiles, furniture etc. These days, those sort of local operations hardly exist. Production generally takes place in China, which provides more barriers to entry for a would be business start-up.

    Another completely different factor effecting our generation is that many of us grew up in very comfortable middle class homes, wanting for very little. In general, this makes us a lot less hungry to succeed in business than our grandparents’ generation.

  • Distant Relative says:

    Hey Frochel: Interesting theory in your latest – which I’ve heard before – that ascribes some of the phenomenal business success of Aussie Jews to the relative lack of business acumen among the general population in the 40’s and 50’s. In Sydney there is also the story that during the war years and in their immediate aftermath only the Jews were willing to live in Dover Heights, Diamond Bay and similar areas because they were potential targets for Japanese ships – and then, in subsequent years, property prices skyrocketed, with many Jews the obvious beneficiaries.
    Urban legends perhaps?

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