Income Disparity

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

One must be “thankful” when the news coming out of Israel is the high price of cottage cheese.  As is so often the case, it is a relatively minor event that sparks major repercussions, often with unintended consequences. This is true not only in national or international relations but in our personal lives as well. Modern technology enables issues that may have taken decades to surface in the past to do so in weeks, days or even hours. Yet despite the power of modern technology, not every problem can be solved as quickly as it surfaces.

Major transformations bring much dislocation in their wake. The advent of the car hurt the horse and buggy business; e-books have forced book publishers to shift focus, and major chains have hurt the mom and pop stores. While some get (super) rich, many may lose their jobs, not because of recession but because of rapid economic growth.

Nowhere has the economic upheaval been greater than in the land of Israel. A barren, sparsely populated desert has been transformed into an economic powerhouse in a short 60 years. The list of Israeli technological innovations is breathtaking.  Many are described in the best selling book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.  Once thought of as a place to send our charitable dollars, Israel has become one of the best places to invest for those looking to turn a profit.

Lest one think that a profit motive is somehow less noble than helping the idealistic but poor pioneers living in a socialist backwater, our Sages assert that the highest form of tzedakah is not the giving of charity but rather investments that create jobs and help the needy become self-sufficient. Philanthropists can (and should) have their cake and eat it too.

Yet despite—or perhaps because of—their rapid economic growth, while Israel as a whole can be counted amongst the wealthiest nations of the world, many of its citizens are not. The gap between rich and poor is widening everywhere, but nowhere is this problem greater than in Israel; no other country in the western world has a greater income disparity between rich and poor. While the causes for this are many, including the huge segments of the population who actually choose not to seek employment, it is a problem that threatens the social fabric of the country. 

The resonance of the “tent cities” in so many segments of Israeli society—rich and poor, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sefaradi, settler and leftist—speaks to the depth of the problem, but also gives hope for a solution. When so many are united in a proper cause, solutions are much easier to come by. It seems to me that some variation of Warren Buffett’s plea to tax the super-wealthy at higher rates is an equitable must.  While Israelis are deeply divided on so many core issues, the values of tzedakah, chesed, and tikkun olam are deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche. 

Tragically, the terrorist attacks near Eilat brought our focus elsewhere. Let us pray that the year 5772 ushers in a period where Israeli energies will be able to focus on the social needs of the country.

Comments rabbijay@torahinmotion.org