Debunking the Myths

Professor Oz Almog's extensive research on Israeli society uncovers the truth about poverty, social gaps, and the gaps between different groups in Israel

Poverty in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Nicky Kelvin)
Poverty in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Nicky Kelvin)
“Thinking,” Goethe once wrote, “is better than knowing. But doing is best of all!”
Those of us who research Israel’s economy and society do think, sometimes. But mostly, we “know.” We know Israeli society is divided and divisive, fractured by huge social gaps and inequalities in wealth and income that slash through it like the fault line of a 7.0 earthquake. We know this because the data collected by the respected Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) prove it unequivocally.
What, however, if much of that thinking and knowing is simply wrong? What if the social gaps are much smaller than we think? What if one day, we left our cloistered ivory tower offices and began “doing,” collecting our own observations and data and rethinking what we “know”? As an economist who always crunches numbers gathered by others, I am as guilty of “knowing” as anyone.
To explore this topic, I spoke with University of Haifa Prof. Oz Almog, a sociologist in the department of Land of Israel Studies. Almog has built one of the best and most popular websites for learning about the real Israeli society and the groups and segments that comprise it, called “People Israel” []. He got support from the Haifa Technion’s Neaman Institute for his project and was aided by his wife Tami, an expert on the use of computer technology in education. The site now has UNESCO support and recognition.
To gather data, Almog scours Israel, writing thousands of pages of text based on interviews with citizens and taking thousands of photographs (he is an accomplished photographer).
He also uses data on sub-groups from unconventional sources, including advertising agencies and market research firms, whose businesses depend crucially on accurate data.
Almog’s specialty is semiotics, the study of the signs and symbols of culture, as applied to Israeli sub-cultures. From this rather exotic perspective, and massive field work, comes a radically new view of Israel’s social gaps.
On Israeli Arab poverty: “I have a research assistant from Kafr Kanna, an Arab town of 20,000 in the Galilee,” relates Almog.
“He says many Arabs there are poor. I ask him, what is poverty? I’ll show you poverty. I bring him to see a shikun, rundown public housing tenements, blocks and blocks of small apartments in Jewish neighborhoods. This is poverty, I explain. Arabs live mostly in single houses attached to land.
“I live in Isfiya, a mostly Druze village near Haifa. Tami and I moved there six months ago to improve my spoken Arabic. Isfiya ranks very low in average income. But there is almost no family there without a single house on private land, usually a large one. People there build their houses at a fraction of the cost of Israeli Jews. They do much of the work themselves, and in a ‘mutual assistance’ community, get labor from relatives, friends and neighbors, and give their labor in return. I now buy food in Isfiya supermarkets. The cost is way less than elsewhere. People buy coffee, rice and other foodstuffs in bulk. True, people there say they are poor and point to the unpaved streets, crumbling sidewalks and filthy parks. But if they mustered their labor and skills, they could repair them in one week.
‘[The authorities] neglect us,’ they say. ‘It’s not our problem.’” On haredi (ultra-Orthodox) poverty: “Once a year, the haredi newspaper “HaMevaser” runs a conference for businesses that sell to haredim. You should see what they buy. Costly silver articles – astonishing.
At least half the haredim are not poor and they have a small but significant segment of wealthy millionaires. The Orthodox religious groups don’t have nearly as many millionaires.
There is an enormous underground economy there. Haredim do various odd jobs, opportunistic ones, with unrecorded income. When the CBS surveyor asks, are you regularly employed, haredim say, rightly, no. Because they do these odd jobs. How else do you explain how they can buy $80,000 apartments for several of their many children?” On perceived poverty: “This is a true story. In 2003, social NGOs sued the State of Israel, asking the Supreme Court to disallow massive government cuts in welfare, thus violating “the fundamental right to live with dignity.”
Part of the evidence they supplied came from a single mother, who said that “for me, being poor is to see a leather handbag or jacket in a store window and to know I can never buy them.” She did not mention lacking food or medicine. For her, poverty is not being able to buy what others can, for herself and her children, and this causes deep, legitimate distress.
“Take the man who works as a security guard at the entrance to a restaurant. He is not hungry. He is not homeless. But his eyes are dead. He has boring work and has no selfesteem.
So there is a gap there. But it’s not a material one, it’s psychological. Give the guard 0.1 percent of the profits? Suddenly he has a stake in the restaurant. People are coming to my place. He greets customers warmly. MK Shelly Yacimovich wants to limit wage gaps between CEOs and workers. I support this. But I also recommend giving workers a share of the profits, even a tiny one, so they too become owners of capital and gain new self-respect.”
On the Sephardi-Ashkenazi gap: “The CBS asks only where your father was born, not your mother. It’s true: Israeli-born wageearners with fathers born in Europe or America earn 30 percent more than those with fathers born in Asia or Africa. But many of those same ‘Sephardim’ have mothers who are Ashkenazim. So they are neither. The fact is, Israelis born in Israel, and whose father was born in Israel, are members of the “Israeli” ethnic group – not Sephardi, not Ashkenazi. They are highly mobile in our society and they are mostly ignored in the official statistics.
“Much is made of the fact that the Supreme Court is almost purely Ashkenazi; of the 15 judges, just one is Sephardi, and one is Arab. But to become a Supreme Court justice, you have to practice law for 30 years. And many Sephardim did not study law 30 years ago. But they do today. The gap is closing. Most studies of social gaps examine the current gap. But few study how the gap has changed over time – and these gaps have been closing steadily. There has been enormous upward social mobility.”
On male-female gaps: “Women have now closed much of the education gap. More women than men now receive BA, MA, and PhD degrees. Some professions, like mechanical engineering, are still mostly male. But more and more women are entering professions like law, medicine, architecture and industrial engineering.”
On the real social gap: “The most important variable that defines income and status today is not ethnicity, religious sub-group or gender. It is where you live. Hebrew University demographer Dov Friedlander first stated this and he was vilified for it. In the cities, the gaps have closed. But the income and wealth gap between city and periphery is large. The best thing we could do to close this gap is to link the peripheral towns and cities with a train service.”
[A 2008 paper in the “Journal of Transportation and Land Use” by Technion scholars Eran Leck, Shlomo Bekhor and Daniel Gat found: “Empirical evidence suggests that transportation improvements, especially in the form of introducing new rail links in underserved cities, could significantly contribute to the alleviation of wage disparities between core and peripheral cities.” Northern Negev cities Ofakim, Netivot and Sderot will soon get stations on the Ashkelon-Beersheba train line.] On the real gap in Jewish values: Almog insists, “We are not asking the right questions.
Life is not just about how much money or wealth you have. The quality of life depends on things that are much broader. We pay a heavy price for our wealth. In the end material wealth starts to haunt us. My father-in-law asks how much does a ‘kilo’ of frayed nerves and insecurity cost? “In the end our greatest strategic asset is our Judaism. In the name of enterprise and free markets, are we losing the assets of our Jewish values? This is the biggest gap. Our economics cannot be a value-free zone.”
Where you stand on an issue, it is said, depends on where you sit. If social science scholars sit in their offices, rather than prowl the homes, workplaces, synagogues, malls and street corners where real people live, work, pray and play, we will never truly understand our society and economy.
Based on his fieldwork, Almog believes Israeli society is happier and more cohesive than we think. Indeed, a Gallup World Poll ranks Israel eighth in the world in happiness, six places ahead of the United States. Three Israelis in every five say they are “thriving.”
But there is no room for complacency. If indeed our greatest asset is our historic Jewish values that stress fairness, mutual responsibility, charity, and dignity for all, are we degrading those values? As Goethe urged, it is time to shift gears from “knowing” and “thinking,” to “doing.” •
The writer is senior research associate, S. Neaman Institute, Technion