A successful society is a skilled society

Jews were banned from manual labor in the Middle Ages and the job of money-lending was imposed upon them. The repercussions are apparently long term, with modern-day Jews opting for jobs in financial fields while shunning the manual work needed for successful nation-building.

The Money Lenders  (photo credit: Courtesy: The Money Lenders by Quentin Massys)
The Money Lenders
(photo credit: Courtesy: The Money Lenders by Quentin Massys)
On a recent evening at Il Postaio - my favorite restaurant in Israel - we asked our waiter Itzik about the whereabouts of Moshe, his father and the owner of the restaurant. Wiping his hands on his apron, Itzik assured us he would be coming soon, adding that it is very important to his Turkish-born father to be present at the restaurant to greet his guests and oversee the smooth running of the establishment. The restaurant, which Moshe started with his Italian-born wife Vittoria  24 years ago, is a family enterprise that now includes his two children, Itzik and Vered, as well as a third generation; Vered’s son Omri.
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Not needing any prodding, Itzik launched into a lengthy exposition about how the Italian eatery is “part of the families’ blood.” This might explain how, even in the uber-competitive city of Tel Aviv, Il Postaio is still going strong after more than two decades. Even when he cuts his hands in the kitchen preparing the food, Itzik doesn’t complain, and insists that it’s all part of the effort. He loves his work and he can’t imagine doing something else.
Even as an industrialist I know that initiatives such as this lively restaurant are as vital to the future of Israel as our export products. The heart of the matter is not the restaurant’s breaded zucchini flowers, or lemon veal scaloppini, or its seafood or pasta, but rather the skills needed to create such a successful enterprise and the pride that comes with these skills. Israel needs more people willing to take the time to develop such expertise in a wide range of fields.
Moshe and Vittoria have succeeded on two fronts: They have created a popular eating establishment where many of the city’s notables occupy the same tables each week. They have also created a family of craftsmen. And therein lies the rub. Like the medieval masters of a guild, they have passed down their knowledge of how to run a superb restaurant onto the next two generations. And perhaps more importantly, they have taught their children to have pride in the work they do.
In his captivating book The Craftsman, Professor Richard Sennett claims that the craftsman “represents in each of us the desire to do something well, concretely, for its own sake.” The guilds in medieval Europe demonstrated this, because money was not the main key to economic success. Instead, the guilds’ success relied on “knowledge capital” – those hard-won skills that the expert taught his apprentices. Jews were not admitted to this important segment of European society. To be a member of a guild, one had to be Christian. The Christians revered skills and took comfort in the fact that Jesus was a carpenter and a man of the people, not of the nobility. They even made saints of two metalworkers, St. Duncan and St. Ethelwold.
The Jewish exclusion from the guilds of several hundred years ago affects Israel even today. Israelis and Jews in general have a disdain for manual work – a phrase that in itself has garnered an undesirable reputation. Yet the reverence for using one’s hands continues to nurture strong economies where the spirit of the guild lives on; in nations like Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, manual work is on the forefront of industry. Of course today Jews have the freedom to develop such skills, but instead we have resigned ourselves to work primarily in the very same field that was imposed on us in the Dark Ages; Today’s financiers are just a modern day version of the medieval Jewish moneylenders.
Both Jews and Arabs in Israel can become experts in a wide range of fields. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany, where I lived until the age of 10, a strong tradition of vocational training has existed for over 300 years. Most young people enter the dual system education, which has high-quality programs in 350 fields. The courses cover all areas needed in modern society, from baking bread to designing state-of-the-art automobiles. Its success lies in its mandate to train students in the workplace as well as in the classroom. Other advanced places such as South Korea and Singapore have recognized the wisdom of this approach and have adopted this system of education. We are beginning to introduce it here, at the Zur Lavon Academy in the Galil. But we need to expand it to other fields so that Israelis can be trained not just to do jobs, but to partake in vocations they are proud of. The Tel Aviv restaurant of Il Postaio (translation: the pasta maker) serves as a paradigmatic model for people in all fields to imitate.
The writer is the founder and honorary chairman of ISCAR, Ltd. For the past 50 years he has been involved in establishing technical education programs and is chairman of the Zur Lavon organization for technical education. Lynn Holstein contributed to this article.