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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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