The serving elite or the self-serving elite

Even members of Knesset, the people’s representatives, are no longer expected to be outstanding leaders with exceptional skills.

CHILDREN PARTICIPATE in technology-related activities during Scientists’ Night at the University of Haifa in 2016 (photo credit: Courtesy)
CHILDREN PARTICIPATE in technology-related activities during Scientists’ Night at the University of Haifa in 2016
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Throughout the State of Israel’s existence, the notion of a select group of individuals devoted to national service, in government, the military, business or the religious establishment has been strongly rooted. The perception of this “serving elite” alternated over time between positive and negative. Like the discourse around the general term “elite,” the serving elite is characterized by isolation and a members-only attitude. It also has a more positive side. Counted as a core value of Religious Zionists, it is a modern version of the “chosen people” concept, according to which we are chosen not for extra privileges, but for extra responsibilities.
By definition, the elite prides itself on its superiority and champions excellence. In every realm, professional, spiritual or political there are small, exclusive groups of people who have dedicated their lives to their work or their vision and are counted as the “greats of a generation.” The public does not follow blindly, but looks up to them as guides and beacons.
In recent years, contempt for spiritual and intellectual distinction has taken hold, a contempt that did not characterize Jewish communities through the generations, which prided themselves on excellence. Even members of Knesset, the people’s representatives, are no longer expected to be outstanding leaders with exceptional skills.
So, what is the objection to this select group of elites? In spite of the positive nature of excellence, the members-only mentality keeps most people outside the club. Can any person with the requisite skills and abilities become a part of the ruling establishment, whether rabbinical, judicial or academic? Or is the first row reserved for those of a certain economic class, religious or ethnic group, or nationality?
It is common in general political discourse to critique the elite. In marked contrast, the religious and Orthodox public accord them a special status. Singular respect is reserved for spiritual teachers and rabbis. Between the religious, ideological and social justifications for the special status of the serving elite class, countless levels of isolation develop, separating the most endowed and privileged from the general Israeli public. It justifies separate elite communities and schools, as well as youth movements and political parties.
In recent years the religious elite has taken on a new ideological layer to its isolationism, this layer being a republican socio-economic philosophy. This worldview places individual liberty as its cornerstone, and favors diminishing the state’s social involvement by reducing the government’s role and size. I passionately contend that these values have nothing in common with the core Jewish idea and ideal of community. But backed by massive funding from organizations like the Tikvah Fund, The Kohelet Policy Forum and others, radical free market ideology has settled comfortably in the hearts of the serving religious elite.
I recently gave a lecture on social and economic issues in one of the flagship institutions of Religious Zionism, the Makor Haim Yeshiva. The discourse with the 17-year-old students included questions like, “Why should the state spend resources on reducing housing prices in Gush Dan? People who can’t live in the center should live in Sderot,” “Why shouldn’t we exclude weaker students that lower the school’s academic level?”
Naturally, the young men declared their belief in charity, but could not understand why it should come at their own expense. While I was not surprised at the general attitude, I was astounded by a question asked near the end of my lecture, after an hour of discussing narrowing our country’s social gaps. “So, what is actually wrong with social inequality?” asked one young man.
From the questions raised, I understood that these students saw the wealthy as the engine of the economy. In the past, I explained, there was indeed a question regarding whether socio-economic gaps were good or bad for the economy, aside from the moral aspect of the debate. This was at a time when the economy was based on means of production, and through its wealth and entrepreneurship the wealthy, and indeed a small financial elite, drove the economy to develop.
In the 21st century the paradigm has changed radically. Today’s economy is driven by innovation and creativity, two things not bound by inherited social status or financial means but deriving from skills and ideas. Brilliant and creative people can come from anywhere and any background. Fertile ideas are nurtured in diverse environments. The inventor of the next groundbreaking cancer treatment or founder of the next startup may well come from an Arab or Orthodox family in the periphery.
The better a modern state learns to open up possibilities for people from all parts of the population, the greater its growth potential. The goal is not that everyone be equal. Likewise, I would not suggest weakening the strong to narrow the gaps. But I would certainly suggest a significant investment of our country’s resources to create greater equality of opportunity.
My conversation with the students at Makor Haim characterizes the current economic opinion expressed in a large proportion of the religious media and public discourse. Regulation is bad, state intervention in markets such as housing or banking is damaging, free enterprise is supreme.
Even in a purely economic debate, I would argue that instead of a binary discussion we should formulate the desired bottom line. Is freedom of the markets a goal in itself or is increased competition the goal, and the free market a means in achieving it? If competition is the goal, many economists point out that unregulated competition leads to a concentrated market and in effect makes it less free. This is doubly true in a small country with an “island economy” such as Israel. Without government and legislative intervention, we will find ourselves with duopols – a situation in which two suppliers dominate the market for a commodity or service, in almost every field – in cellular communications, media, banks and food. There will be no competition.
I am not delegitimizing the classic republican approach, but am certainly baffled by it finding a place in the hearts of Israel’s religious public. This is not an academic debate; I’m simply asking whether it is part of our core values to take an active role in reducing inequality between classes and sectors of Israeli society. And if so, whether we are willing to pay a certain price to achieve it.
THE HOUSING crisis is a classic example of the differences between the approaches to reducing inequality. In the current reality, those from property-owning families will be able to acquire more property; those from families who don’t will face obstacles in entering the “property owning elite.” When Moshe Kahlon began his term as Finance Minister, 30% of apartment buyers were investors, meaning people buying a second apartment (or third, or fifth). Fifty percent of the buyers were people upgrading, meaning people who owned an apartment and were replacing it with a newer one, and 20% were first-time buyers.
It’s obvious that people who already own one or more apartments are less affected by rising housing costs. As their property rises in value the potential return on investment is high. This is the reason they can get housing loans on convenient terms, as it is likely the investment can be leveraged to buy more property. Thus the adage “money begets money.”
When we intervened in the housing market, the first of our two main courses of action was the “target price program,” in which the government forgoes around NIS 200,000 when selling land, and this sum is taken into consideration by the contractor thanks to winning the tender for submitting the lowest bid. Bottom line: this adds up to significant discount on purchasing an apartment. The second course of action was focused on measures to drive investors out of the market, by means of raising the purchase tax and attempting to legislate a tax on ownership of multiple apartments. These measures were met with scathing criticism.
At the end of the day, the moral and social norm-centered debate focuses on the role of the state in reducing inequality. When it comes to housing, the wealthiest play the same old tune – build more and there will be more for everyone. Let the state help the weak, just not at my expense.
On the one hand it’s obvious that without intervention the current inequitable state of affairs will persist, and on the other hand a measured intervention that opens doors for those who don’t come from homes with opportunities meets massive resistance.
The elitist sentiment within the religious public translates to other issues as well: in Jerusalem, 90% of state-funded religious high schools are exclusive. Admission is not decided by clear and objective criteria, but by interviews, that have become the ultimate tool in maintaining the monolithic features of the clique. Various pretexts, ranging from practically Ivy League academic standards to narrowly defined religious stringencies, are used to restrict access to these exclusive clubs.
In such an educational system it is easy to fall prey to the pretense of excellence. Who doesn’t want his children to study at the best school, with excellent students just like them? And again we get the same response – I’m all for helping the weak, but please do it in some other school.
With regard to education it’s easier to explain how useless this demand for homogeneity is: beyond investing resources in teachers, personal example and rich learning environments are critical to success at school and in life. Heterogeneous classrooms allow for different models of inspiration, from a brother serving in an elite military unit, to a mother who is an engineer, to a father who is a carpenter.
The two fields mentioned above are different. In education it is diversity, inspiration and role models that drive the narrowing of gaps, and in housing it is limiting the ability of wealth to produce more wealth easily, to prevent pushing those lacking in great wealth out of the game. But in both cases the goal is the same – lessening social inequality.
The current reality is not set in stone. Furthermore, it is the role of the visionary elite of all of society’s sectors to divert the train from the dead-end tracks and connect it to the main rail. This must be done while preserving the value and expectation of excellence while allowing equal opportunity in entering it. This mandates involvement of the community and poses a great challenge to the religious Zionist elite, namely formulating a notably Jewish worldview that deals with socially responsible economics and narrowing social gaps.
The writer is a Knesset member and chairman of the Kulanu faction in the Knesset.