Ethics@Work: Is consumerism compatible with Zionism?

There seems to be an assumption that consumer culture translates into more emigration.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
Is consumerism compatible with Zionism? The question I discuss with neighbors virtually every Shabbat, and with colleagues on frequent occasions, has now reached the venerable Wall Street Journal. The Journal asks in a prominent recent article: "Is the idea of an advanced consumer society, with its attendant individualism, compatible with the solidarity and focus required to defend a small state bordered by hostile neighbors?" This topic is more suited to a book than a short column, and perhaps more suitable for an editorial than a business section column. Yet, classic economic ethics questions are at the heart of this question: the nature of consumerism, how to define the importance of economic equality, the relative ethical virtues of a conscript vs. volunteer army, etc. Surprisingly, the article in the Wall Street Journal, the flagship of world consumerism, leaves the reader wondering. "As Israel prospers, some fear its defenses may grow soft." Salvation, if any, is seen in either the renaissance of traditional Zionist egalitarianism or in religious Zionism, each given a prominent side article. The Journal article gives prominence to General Elazar Stern's comment that relatively few elite soldiers come from ultra-bourgeois Tel Aviv, and cites figures that by contrast religious Zionists are highly overrepresented. All of the "consumerists" interviewed seem to be pondering emigration. Many of my neighbors and colleagues agree with this pessimistic assessment; in a few hundred words I will try to summarize why I disagree. The claim that consumerist societies are soft and easy to conquer is a widespread one. Nazi leader Hermann Goering famously dismissed the "guns and butter" dilemma (the tradeoff between domestic prosperity and military might) by declaring that "Guns will make us strong, but butter will only make us fat." But I find no evidence for this claim, and my recollection is that at the end of World War II, the US (and its allies) occupied Germany and Japan, and not vice versa. My view is that butter, besides being desirable in its own right (unlike guns which are a necessary evil) makes you strong in many ways: a strong economy provides the means to obtain advanced military systems, which remain a critical determinant of military success; they provide a disciplined and educated work force that is much better able to prosecute any military conflict; and it gives the citizenry a lot to lose from defeat. While some Americans 50 years ago may have fretted "Better Red than dead," I think the average Israeli today has a pretty good idea why it's worth risking his or her life to perpetuate our thriving culture rather than living in the kind of republic our hostile neighbors are currently offering us. There seems to be an assumption that consumer culture translates into more emigration, but this partially confuses net and gross figures. Certainly with more openness more Israelis go abroad, but studies have shown that a prosperous economy is also the most important determinant of immigration, which continues to be significant. And a thriving consumer economy gives fence-sitters one more good reason to stay. Israel also has significant natural increase. I suspect that Israeli Arabs are also anxious to keep our country from becoming an Islamic republic, but even limiting ourselves to the Jewish population of Israel we see consistent growth of about 1.5% per year. It hardly seems like our country is emptying of people as it fills with shopping malls. I don't doubt that the expansion of civilian earning opportunities means that military service becomes less attractive to many. I also don't think this is all bad. Perhaps some 18-year olds really do have better things to do than serve three years in the army. I am inclined to think that it merely means that Israel should move to a volunteer army instead of the conscription system it has relied on since the founding of the State. I recognize that this step has both positive and negative repercussions, both militarily and civilly, but I am surprised at the wide and instinctive opposition it provokes. I haven't seen any studies of this topic that I found thorough and even-handed, and I believe some are needed. For one thing, a volunteer army would mean an additional channel for upward mobility since, if fewer wealthy teenagers join the army, this would mean that a greater fraction would come from disadvantaged backgrounds (including more non-Jews), and salaries would have to be increased as they always are in a volunteer army. I am as egalitarian as the next guy, but I just don't find a convincing case that today's Israel is breeding a deprived underclass. What I do know is that, based on consumption statistics, even the poorest Israelis enjoy a material standard of living that was reserved for the elites only a generation ago. This is true not only of consumer goods (virtually no Israeli household is without a color television for lack of means, or without a cellular phone), but even for things like spacious apartments. Today less than 10% of Jewish households have housing density of more than 1.5 persons per room, whereas 40 years ago almost half did. (For non-Jews, the improvement is even more dramatic: from almost 80% in 1980 to about 40% now. I don't have figures for 1967.) Is religious Zionism the only path to salvation? I certainly support and identify with this important movement, but I don't find evidence that secular "middle Israel" is losing its commitment to the country's survival. Jewish identity means different things to different Israelis, but for a large majority it continues to be something very important which they feel they can best realize here. Numerically, anti-Zionists continue to be a marginal group even among secular Israeli Jews. What about "debauched" Tel Aviv? Well, there is good evidence that the sociological group that provided civil and military leadership for Israel in past generations is now more inclined to provide economic leadership. But this absolutely does not mean that there are not others ready, willing and able to provide capable civil and military leadership of Israel in the next generation. Is consumerism compatible with Zionism? Certainly it is not a viable substitute and we need to continue to cultivate our common Israeli culture. But a free, open and prosperous economy, with its natural concomitant of consumer culture, is compatible with and even essential for the continued thriving of the Jewish state, and we should resist efforts to view it as a threat rather than as a valuable if limited tool. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.