Class Divide

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, November 11, 2010

The world's two largest Jewish communities differ in many ways. Class is one of them. That fact was made painfully clear this week as 4,000 communal professionals, activists, and donors met in New Orleans for the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America—at the same time that, in Israel, the National Insurance Institute (equivalent to the U.S. Social Security Administration) issued its annual report on "poverty and social gaps" in the Jewish state.

In New Orleans, the delegates learned that Federations have raised $900 million thus far this year, up 4 percent from last year. In the aftermath of the recession, and amid the proliferation of more individualized forms of philanthropy, that figure is a sign not only of American Jewry's economic vigor but of the degree to which centralized giving remains a potent vehicle of community-building and collective identity.

For its part, the National Insurance Institute's report revealed that fully one-quarter of Israel's families, and more than a third of its children, are below the poverty line (roughly, $1,500 a month for a family of four). In most of the 15,000 families that formally entered the ranks of the poor in 2009, the breadwinners—and nearly half of the affected families have two—have lost their jobs or recently suffered a pay cut.   

To be sure, a sizable portion of American Jewish philanthropy is generously earmarked to alleviating the distress of poor Israelis. But this only underlines the degree to which the class differences between Israel and America shape, in both places, Jewish experience and life—for class is a matter not only of income but of occupation, education, and status, all of which in turn influence religion, politics, and culture. While this should be obvious, it somehow tends to get lost in the discussion of contemporary Jewish life.

Simply put, and taking into account the recent recession, American Jews are overwhelmingly (though of course not entirely) middle-class or higher. Israeli Jews, by contrast, are not overwhelmingly anything: some are richer, some poorer, many in-between. Economically speaking, one community is largely homogeneous, the other varied.

Today's circumstances have histories. American Jews, overwhelmingly poor on arrival, rose through the 20th century from sweatshops to small businesses to law firms and doctors' offices to academia, communications, and finance. Crucial to Jewish success has been the success of American capitalism, urbanism, and the postwar meritocratic ethos. In other words, American Jewish life is middle-class not only materially but also socially and culturally. As Will Herberg noted in his classic Protestant Catholic Jew (1955), American Jews reworked their Jewishness in terms of the American Way of Life: "individualistic, dynamic, pragmatic . .  . [defined by] an ethic of self-reliance, merit, and character." Values may have shifted since then—the upper middle classes in America increasingly eschew the rugged-individualist ethic for the universalist and multicultural—but American Jewish life faithfully continues to run parallel to that of other urban, affluent Americans.  

Israelis emerge from a different history.  Labor Zionism, dominant in the years of state-building, sought to create an occupationally diverse and (in theory) classless society infused with the ethic of national solidarity. When, in the 1990s, capitalism came belatedly to Israel, it did so with a vengeance. Today the country is economically stratified, with an extraordinary concentration of wealth in few hands at the top, an exceptionally dynamic and outward looking hi-tech sector, a struggling middle class, and large numbers of working (and, in some sectors, non-working) poor. Elements of the older solidarity do remain, notably in the national health-care system and the high rates of voluntarism, but economic instability is real and poverty close to hand. Once the country's poorest populations—the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs—are added into the mix, the picture becomes all the more diverse, and the question of class all the more complicated.

Introducing a class perspective can sharpen perceptions on a range of matters. For instance, "social justice" takes on a different coloration among American and Israeli Jews. Most American Jews have long since lost their personal ties to the working classes; indeed, this distancing was one of the markers dividing the New Left of the 1960s from the Old Left of the 30s. When American Jews undertake "social justice," often under the self-conscious rubric of tikkun olam, it can seem like a kind of noblesse oblige. Within Israel, social-justice campaigns (as on behalf of the "contract workers" who receive no benefits and are a growing slice of the workforce) are more immediate and local.

Beyond this, what sorts of meaningful comparisons emerge? For most American Jews, three fundamental dimensions of identity tend to run together: primordial ethnic belonging; socioeconomic and civic status; and transcendent cultural values. Argue though they may about politics and culture, they do so within the basic premises of American upper-middle-class life.

The case tends to be different for Israelis. Primordial identity is strong, yet the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide, complicated by the presence of recently arrived immigrants from Russia, is still very much there and still very much affected by class factors. For instance, many high-earning Sephardim in blue-collar professions have been unable to translate their wealth into status, and their resentments have played no small role in the growth of both Likud and Shas.

Economic and social status in Israel is likewise highly differentiated, with Jews to be found on all rungs of the ladder as well as in the army, police, and security forces. And as for values, there too the divides are deep: in this respect Israel is less like the U.S. than like Europe in having both an established "church" and a determinedly secularist majority. (American Orthodoxy, too, exhibits a variant pattern from the American Jewish norm, but is far more acculturated than its Israeli counterparts.)  

In short, Israeli Jewry, seemingly the more parochial, is also far more internally variegated than American Jewry. If that sounds paradoxical, it is only one of the puzzles that recognizing the reality and multiple effects of class can introduce into the self-understanding of both communities. Another, deeper puzzle has to do with which of these two Jewries may be better positioned to withstand the onslaughts of the future, already fast upon us, and to emerge with ethnic and national bonds, civic accord and commitment, and transcendent values intact.


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