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Is Capitalism Still Good for the (Australian) Jews?

September 1, 2009 – 8:58 pm8 Comments
Vintage Israeli May Day Poster. Source: www.Nostal.co.il

Vintage Israeli May Day Poster. Source: www.Nostal.co.il

By Almoni

I write this not as an economist, but someone concerned about a socially and environmentally just future. Perhaps it’s time we gave up the worship of the Golden Calf and changed how we live.

When I was a kid – well over 40 years ago – I remember one of my grandmothers scraping fat off the chicken soup to put into a battered billycan next to the stove for schmalz. She also used to also scrape all the bits of butter off a wrapper, put them in the butter dish, and then keep the wrapper for baking. The dunny in her house (like ours) was outside. I knew how bad things had been for my grandparents, because they had been reduced to hunting and eating rabbits on a farm in Burwood during the 1920s, even though they had been brought up Orthodox before coming here.

At my other grandparents’ house in Carlton, the meat was kashered on a big marble slab in the backyard, and blowflies used to gather on the gauze netting. On the radio, and in the papers, you always heard about how terrible things had been in the Depression, and we were still living in its shadow.

When I left Mount Scopus for financial reasons, there were kids at Caulfield North Central who had to be given uniforms and shoes. I always got chilblains in winter, because we didn’t have central heating, and for extra warmth, we put coats on our beds. The man who sat next to me in shul was so broke that he had to sell his beautiful tallit with its silver atarah (braid).

Many post-war children and early baby boomers grew up as much in the shadow of the Depression as in the shadow of the Holocaust. Even for very middle-class families like ours, our houses, often undecorated wooden houses or simple brick veneers would seem quite shabby compared to the high-walled, private palaces which seem to line the streets of Caulfield today. We held the few rich Jews (who lived in Toorak) in awe. Coming from such backgrounds, we aspired to affluence.

Over the next 40 years, with the development of a manufacturing and services economy and population growth, life seemed to get better for most people very quickly. Simchas became more and more elaborate, shuls were built, and plaques in honour of donors went up. With cheaper airfares and telecommunications, connection with Israel developed from mere ideology, to being physically easy to achieve. Jewish life became embedded in a culture of comfort and affluence.

Now, everything seems possible, and not just possible, but essential. It’s completely different to the world of 40 or more years ago.

Previously, capitalism enabled a change in society which liberated Jews from their traditional second-class status in Western countries. Remarkably, despite being despised outsiders, it enabled them to become innovators and use their brains as financiers and businessmen to develop niche skills that were high in demand all over Europe, and these talents were brought to Australia.

Zionism developed in this milieu, and an ideology of redemptive colonization extended to helping Jews in Arab lands. Only Jews in the former Soviet bloc did not receive the benefits of this process of social and economic liberation.

But is contemporary capitalism post-Menzies and Whitlam, and especially neo-liberal capitalism which emphasises market rather than social solutions, still good for the Jews? Today, in the context of wealth and consumption by Jews in Australian society, severe problems in the global economy, and environmental challenges ahead, should such a successful minority, which has led society in so many ways begin to modify how it accumulates wealth and consumes? And for those who have accumulated wealth, are there more socially productive ways of disbursing it? Can Jews once again, be pioneers in developing new forms of production and enterprise that benefit the majority rather than just the affluent few?

The patterns of wealth accumulation in Australia are such that increasingly, resources are held by a few and generationally transmitted, reinforcing patterns of reduced accumulation. There is little trickle-down effect; and as the rich become richer, the poor become poorer. There is no reason to suspect that Jews are not part of this trend as much as any other group (and perhaps, because of the place in society, even more so).

Now what are the problems I see with this?

First, I have already written about my concerns with the accumulation of private wealth and social capital through Jewish schools (as with any other form of ethnic, separatist education) here, so I won’t go into detail on that argument, other than to suggest that such separatism in a fundamental societal institution only further exacerbates the cultural, social, and economic divide.

Second, the culture of fetishistic, conspicuous consumption and monument building (Mammon and the Golden Calf) appears deeply embedded in the local community. It appears similar to the Prosperity Gospel found in certain churches, that material reward and the acclamation it gets, is divinely sanctioned.

Occasionally, a rabbi will speak out against the extravagance of smachot, or building programs, but to no avail, as we see from the extraordinary advertising supplements in the Australian Jewish News. We all know of the trauma that goes into financing those events for many people, and the huge debt and psychological trauma it can entail. Why not be happy with hiring out the local bowling club and having a massive glatt bbq under the stars? Why not donate what you save to a social housing fund?

We also see consumption combined with complete disregard for the environment in McMansions (or should they just be called palaces), with their rows of energy consuming lights, central heating, and double or triple (underground) garages. Is such housing necessary? Where is the architectural leadership in the community to break this cycle of private ugliness? And why not, as I do, ride a bike as often as possible, and contribute to carbon neutrality?

Third, and this is perhaps the most controversial point I wish to raise, should the Jewish culture of small business entrepreneurialism move away from that of supporting the generation of private wealth to one equally supporting social ventures, environmentally-friendly business, and ethical manufacturing in a globalized economy? For those who have the capital to invest, how can their wealth be directed towards ethical investment and not just financial speculation? Can we encourage kids to think of their entry in professions not as a means to make money, but as a means to improve society and make an income?

Fourth, should leading philanthropists support the community by providing opportunities for others with less wealth to set up joint foundations and ventures which support non-profit social change, opportunity and environmental initiatives? A small annual tithe (say 2%) on a few thousand people’s mid-range income would generate a huge investment trust over time.

Fifth, given the strong connection between Australian Jews and Israel, how do we encourage Israel to free itself from the ideologies of neo-liberalism, free-market economy, and privatization which have 1) developed an even worse social and wealth divide with real poverty and endemic corruption 2) made it even more vulnerable to shocks in the international economy because it has no natural resources, and its economic ties are embedded into those of the US economy 3) some of you won’t like this–encouraged Israel to become even more involved in the international arms trade for the sake of profit rather than self-defence?

So while I am pretty much a humanist, this is a sort of dvar torah about the dangers of the Golden Calf just in time for Rosh Hashana.

Whatever your tendency, apples and honey.

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8 Comments »

  • ariel says:

    I agree with your general ideas, although I don’t think we can force people to contribute a tithe. This has to be done by someone “up there” who is willing to take the lead by example.

    Your comments on the extravagance of smachot and large houses is spot on. My parents had a small dinner with their closest friends and a small band of Israeli musicians at their wedding. Now it seems everyone has to have a wedding of which the Packers would be proud. In this sense, the Gerer Rebbe was right to announce a cap on the price of smachot in his community (as mentioned by someone on another article here at Galus).

    As far as housing is concerned, it seems every new couple want their first home to be a mansion. No wonder there is so much debt!

    I disagree with you about private, ethnic-based schools. I think they are important, especially in NSW where the public school system has been in a shambles for the last 20 years and is getting worse by the day. I was privelaged to be educated in the dayschool system from K-12 and would want the same for my children if only so that they grow up with books at school instead of knives. If we’re going to pay top dollar for education, it may as well be in a Jewish school.

  • This reads a little like “Elephants and the Jewish problem”.

    In the post-war era, Australians in general benefitted from capitalism. Hard-working immigrants, many from humble backgrounds, embraced the lucky country, and were the engine of growth.

    We now live in a debt-fueled, consumer-driven society where too many people spend to excess. The Jewish community is probably not more or less affected by this (as you point out), and I certainly agree with Larry & ariel on the role of Jewish leaders in curtailing unnecessary spending (and have commented about this in other posts).

    However, what makes this a Jewish issue? It’s a society issue. This is more of a call towards reforming society at large (both here and in Israel, and why stop there?) to undo the evils of capitalism and convert us into the socialist “level playing field” that the writer dreams of.

  • ariel says:

    A word about socialism: It doesn’t work.
    “Everybody is equal” and “each according to his ability and to each according to his need” are beautiful ideas on paper.
    But as soon as you put someone on top to be in charge, administering the system, they are no longer equal.
    I believe Australia is the lucky country as we have what has been described as a mix of capitalism, social inclusion and a dash of egaliterianism. I would say until the last decade, we were in very good shape, but I wouldn’t blame anybody other than ourselves for falling for the idea of having to keep up with the joneses and being greedy.

  • philip mendes says:

    Almoni: I thought this was a really thoughtful and valuable piece. The Jewish Community Council of Victoria Social Justice Committee has been grapplying with these same issues for a number of years now, and I would urge you to become involved.

    You may also find of interest my earlier pieces: “Not an Oxymoron: Jews and Poverty Today” in Social Alternatives, Volume 25, No.3, 2006, pp.50-54.

    “Lifting the Lid on Poverty in the Jewish Community” in Fagenblat, Michael; Landau, Melanie & Wolski, Nathan(eds.) New Under The Sun: Jewish Australians on Religion, Politics & Culture. Black Inc, Melbourne, 2006, pp.357-365.

    Philip Mendes

  • Almoni says:

    Philip,

    Thanks, I’d like to get involved with the JCCV SJC, but I am overloaded with work for several months and I will be overseas as well shortly

    However, if you have any material I could have electroncially have access to, please (I hope Galus don’t mind), contact the editors to forward it to me as I’d prefer to remain anon for the time being.

    With regards to Ariel’s statement about Jewish schools vs public schools with outut books, and instead, knives. That is an appalling, simply appalling statement to make to characterize state schools, especially in this part of town. Unfortunately, I think your opinions relfect the kind of educational isolation you have grown up in and the private sector plays sublimal marketing games with these fears.

    The key issue for me is the abandonment for electoral reasons, by parties of both sides of facilities such as schools or hospitals for the private market, and the abandonment of long term public good which requires massive investments. With respect to schools, the situation with respect to the transfer of public funds into the private domain is far worse in Victoria. BTW, a similar situation is occuring in Israel, with the growth of a large, separate haredi sector that is educationally, below standard (not to speak of the Arab schools)–all due to ‘liberal’ ideologies and political vote chasing

    We see the bad effects of such –the rich get richer, better educated etc, and the poor get poorer. If you support the principle of social justice, and the development of skills and opportunties across society, then the buck transfer has to stop somewhere. It has gone enough with most private schools and as far as I can see, Jewish schools, which in any case, could do with some rationalization of resources. Please see the details of my other article.

  • philip mendes says:

    Almoni: have sent the book chapter and article through to Anthony to pass onto you.

    Best,

    Philip

  • Almoni says:

    I am not sure if my new post went through, so here is (a version) of it again– there have been calls for anti-materialism amongst Orthodox Jews, see

    http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/againstosten.html

    and among reform Jews, there is concern for sustainability. see http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2009/05/sustainability-conference-a-hu.html, where the orthodox were also represented.

  • Yaakov says:

    The stork, known in Hebrew as the chasida is listed among the non-kosher species of birds in Parashat Shemini (Lev. 11:19)

    The Talmud asks, “Why is this bird called a chasida? Because it acts with loving-kindness (chesed) towards its friends.” One might think that this is a positive virtue, but the stork is not a kosher animal. It acts this way only with those close to it, rather than with all creatures equally. Selective kindness can thus be viewed as self-serving rather than as altruistic, characteristic of the insensitiveness of non-kosher birds. This may be Rashi’s meaning as well: When kindness is restricted to friends it is probably the product of a self-serving interest in reciprocity, which is at the core of flattery which one showers upon an undeserving person in order to gain his favour. Kiddushin 49b

    Our charity and our assistance must be to those in our community but also to those outside our community. We are a light unto the nations. (Isaiah 42:6) How can we be so when we do not interact with them and try to repair their suffering?

    Shimon [the son of Rabban Gamliel] says: It is not what one says, but rather what one does, that makes all the difference in the world. (Pirke Avot 1:17) .

    Social entrepreneurship fits will within the halachic limits on charity.

    Lending money to the poor is a Positive mitzva. So is social partnership with them.

    Lending? You thought I was going to say that we had to give it to them. And partnership? Ma pit’om?

    By the injunction to “lend” we are commanded to lend money to a poor person so as to help him and ease his position. This is an even greater and weightier obligation than giving charity. It is contained in the Torah’s words (Ex. 22:24): “If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with you, etc.”

    We are commanded to lend to the poor man to alleviate his suffering… and this duty is prior to that of giving charity, since the suffering of the one who is reduced to the humiliation of openly begging is not to be compared with the suffering of the one who is too proud to do so but waits for a helping hand. (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 197 (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt).

    My view of social entrepreneurship is based on Shabbat 63a: One who lends money is greater than one who performs charity, and one who forms a partnership is greater than all.

    Social entrepreneurship encourages micro-businesses amongst the poor, usually domestically – ours is the first we’ve heard of internationally. Many social entrepreneurs establish partnerships with the poor and unemployed in underprivileged areas in order to provide income and employment in a sustainable way which weans the recipients off charity and returns to them the dignity of labour. I recommend the book on the topic by Melbourne-based ex brotherhood organiser and Anglican priest, Nic Frances – THE END OF CHARITY won the 2006 Iremonger award.

    Often it’s done with small loans of 50 or 100 Euros although Mohammed Yunus, the founder of the Grameen bank supposedly started his movement – which ended up winning him a Nobel prize – with less than 20 Euros. The loans, at low or no interest, get the poor out of the hands of last-resort money lenders of the sort which are now predating on the less financially able even in Melbourne: interest rates of 10% per month are considered cheap amongst pawnbrokers.

    What says the Torah about lending as a social obligation? Lending to the poor is an obligation: “you shall strengthen him.”
    Deuteronomy (15:7-8). teaches that lending to the poor is an obligation:
    Do not harden your heart and do not close your hand
    To your needy brother.
    Open your hand to him and lend-him-against-a-pledge,
    Sufficient for his lack that is lacking to him.

    Let us now see how this appears in Leviticus (25:35-36):
    When your brother sinks down
    And his strength (e.g., his financial situation) collapses
    You shall hold him (e.g., support and strengthen him)…
    Do not take from him interest or profit, and fear your God
    And your brother will live with you.

    Grameen interest, in the system propounded by Yunus, charges only enough interest to sustain the system. In the bank run by Vikasana Institute for Rural Development, which is the organisation my wife and I support, interest typically runs at under 1.5% a month for unsecured loans to the poor, comparable with secured mortgage finance at 1.25% a month, in a region where pawnbrokers and private moneylenders charge 10% a month. Vikasana borrowers are not paying much over the annual rate of inflation (which is about 0.9% a month).

    I would interpret the inclusion of both words interest and profit to indicate interest which is excessive, which weakens the borrower by nature of its excess and provides you with a profit as opposed to a means of sustaining the system of credit.

    Baba Batra 9b: Rabbi Yitzchak said, “Whoever gives even a small coin to a poor man receives six blessings, but whoever speaks reassuringly to him receives eleven blessings.

    The reassurance with a social entrepreneurship loan is that there is a business into which the follower can fit. Instead of being dependant on charity, participants in the Vikasana Institute plan fit into a fair trade supply chain which provides quality goods at market or below market prices to the west whilst improving income for the rural poor. It does this simply by eliminating the middleman, or by at least imposing itself as the middleman and taking only a sustainable commission to keep itself and its programs going rather than the super-profits of the Nikes and the Adidas chains.

    Social entrepreneurship brings us a step closer to the ideals of “kindness, justice and fairness.” This enhances the economic system – a ban on interest would do entirely the opposite. Jewish law proposes three models, one that prohibits charging poor people interest, one that prohibits any charging of interest and one which proposes reassuring them with a partnership. The values of “kindness, justice and fairness” are eternal, but how they are applied can change, depending on the circumstances.

    Ought our social entrepreneurship only be shared with poor Jews? I don’t think so. Rabbi Yitzchak Meir, the first head of the Chassidic dynasty of Gur, explained that kindness cannot be restricted to friends, and food must be shared with all who are hungry. It gets back to the stork.

    Citing the Rambam’s declaration that all non-kosher birds are cruel by their very nature, the Chidushei HaRim asks how it is possible for the stork to be considered impure, on the one hand, and a model of virtue, on the other. Looking closely at the words of the Talmud, the Chidushei HaRim concludes that there must be some fundamental flaw in the stork’s chesed. I began this drash with the idea that the stork limits its chesed to its fellow birds. Rather than performing deeds of loving-kindness for all of God’s creatures, the stork focuses its energies on its own species alone.

    Time and again we are told to look after the interests of strangers. The Talmud tells of Rebbe Elazar: “Three young disciples of Rabbi Elazar were late for their study with the master. He asked, ‘Where were you?’ They said, ‘We were occupied in performing a mitzvah.’ He replied, ‘As worthy as that is, were there no others to do it so that you could attend to the mitzvah of Torah study?’ ‘No,’ they said, ‘for the man was a stranger.’ With that, Rabbi Elazar knew that had he taught them well.”

    Sympathetic treatment of the stranger in Jewish tradition is considered to be a mitzvah of the highest order. No less than 36 times during the course of Biblical literature are we Jews enjoined to be kind to the stranger, to care for his needs and, in Parsha Kedoshim, Leviticus 19, we are commanded: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

    Ancient Israel recognized that strangers, as outsiders with no support systems, were weak and vulnerable to injustice, just as the rural poor in third world countries are today. Humane treatment of all people, including strangers, was just one way in which law of the Torah differentiated itself from existing law in neighbouring communities. For example, in the Book of Exodus we are told: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Jews are to be especially sensitive to the needs of the strangers in their midst as we once occupied the same status.

    In the Ultimate Future, the non‑Jewish nations will use their power of speech to call out to God and will be strangers no more, as it is written, “For then I will convert the nations to a pure speech, that they shall all call upon the name of God” (Zephaniah 3:9)… However, in the Ultimate Future, [the whole world] all use the power of speech to call out to God, even the non‑Jewish nations. (Likkutei Moharan 1, 66:3).

    How does this particular grouping know to call upon the holy Name? Because we, the light unto the nations, show them. We don’t teach them Torah because we may not. Instead, we show them that our business partnership is an expression of tikkun olam.

    Said the Breslauer: One must not let the world fool him, for no one ends up well in this world. All people, even those who possess everything the world has to offer, eventually experience great suffering. The suffering of one generation affects the next generation as well.

    The nations of the world also need to realize this. Since the world’s allurements are really of no worth, what should they do with their lives? (Sichos HaRan 51). They also can practice tikkun olam and experience the mitzvah of chesed. Otherwise, as the Rebbe writes, When the Jewish people do not make Godliness known to the nations of the world, [this creates a spiritual vacuum]. As a result, the nations induce them to follow ideologies contrary to the Torah (Sefer HaMidos, Emunah 11: 11). So going into the world and doing chesed and tzedakah is good for us in the long run. We read in Baba Batra 10a: All the charity and deeds of kindness that the children of Israel perform in this world promote peace and good understanding between them and Hashem.

    Rebbe Nachman wrote: Our Sages taught that every person must say, ” The whole world was created for my sake.” Therefore, since the whole world was created for my sake, I must always be concerned with improving the world, fulfilling the needs of humanity, and praying for its benefit (Likkutei Moharan 1, 5: 1).

    Having made our way back to Medinat Israel, we should examine whether we can move away from the “stork” model of chesed and tzedaka and branch out to a new model of loving-kindness with a more expansive reach. Chesed and tzedaka start at home, but social entrepreneurship is a living demonstration that they need not end there.

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