Class Mobility Is Relatively High in Israel – at Least Among Jews

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High-tech workers in Israel.
High-tech workers in Israel. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I am Ashkenazi. My parents have degrees and are the scions of pioneers who arrived from eastern Europe before Israel’s establishment. In the army, I met a man who would become one of my best friends: a Mizrahi, whose parents came to Israel in the 1950s and have no academic education. Judging by the public discourse, obviously, I should be earning more than my friend. But I don’t.

He’s a computer engineer working at a successful high-tech firm. I’m a journalist. I’ll never make as much as he does.

The statistics show there’s room for improvement in Israel. The conventional wisdom is that Israeli society is divided into classes and ethnic groups. But are Israelis born to and fated to stay within a certain caste?

We asked Prof. Meir Yaish, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Haifa, who specializes among other things in social mobility: Can Israelis climb the socioeconomic ladder?

Relative to other Western countries, Yaish clarifies, Israel has a high level of class mobility, certainly compared with Britain, France and Germany. He does note that the most recent studies were carried out in the 1990s, comparing that generation with the generation of the 1970s, and he plans to start another study soon. But he believes, based on other tests too, that the picture hasn’t changed.

“British society, for example, is very class oriented: You are born to a status and stay there,” he said. “In that respect, our situation is better.”

According to an international study Yaish did in 2010 with his colleague Robert Andersen of Toronto University (based on data from the late 1990s), the rate of class mobility in the United States is 66%, in France 69%, and in Germany 63%. Israel is among the most mobile nations, with rates of 72%-74%. Which means the structure of opportunities is relatively open in Israel, despite the buzz to the contrary.

So all is well? Not exactly – Israel still has much to improve, the professor says.

“First of all, separation still exists: Ashkenazim are on top, Mizrahim on the bottom and the Arabs are even lower. Nobody disputes that,” Yaish says. There are Mizrahim on top and Ashkenazim low down, obviously, he says, and the middle of the social ladder has both in roughly equal amounts, “but if you look at equality of opportunity and the possibility of moving class, we don’t find great differences between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim.”

Maybe there remains much to improve because today’s Ashkenazim advanced relative to their parents, maintaining the gaps?

“Obviously, everyone is mobile, certainly when you’re talking about a mobility rate of 70%. We need to understand that a large part of this mobility is related to technological changes. The young generation is entering new places of employment. In the 1940s, 20% of Israel’s Jewish population engaged in agriculture and today the figure is 3-4%. A large proportion engaged in industry, many of which moved other the years to work in services and white-collar jobs.

"It isn’t that people are pampered, but the economy we live in now is a service economy, a high-tech economy, an economy of skilled workers. Only 7% work in high-tech, but they supply employment to accountants, lawyers, finance people and other services. People can move in class also irrespective of technological changes: When discussing openness, an effort is made to neutralize the effect of technological change by using more sophisticated statistics.”

You rose? You can also fall

What is class, actually?

“It has a lot of parameters and definitions. Economists tend to look at monthly income levels and divide by percentiles. We sociologists look at additional parameters, an important one being employment throughout a whole lifetime. Ultimately it doesn’t boil down to what one earns at a point in time ... but throughout life, which is usually determined by occupation. Regarding mobility, there’s a big difference between a person who grew up in a family of menial laborers and a person who grew up in a family of office workers.

“Obviously over life a construction worker earns less than a high-tech worker who has to stop working at 50, while a lawyer can work into his 70s. So if you were in a family of laborers and moved to law or high-tech, you moved to a higher class.”

In mobility studies, society is divided up by classes based, more or less, on occupation, Yaish explains. “We check your chance of moving to a different class from the one you were born in.”

In Israel the correlation between birthplace and present position is only partial, and equality of opportunity is greater because, he explains, “more and more places are constantly being created in the higher classes because of the new professions being created, and there are fewer skilled workers. That creates opportunities. The way these opportunities are exploited by the different classes is more equal in Israel than around the world. By the way, it’s no different among Arabs and Jews. It’s important to remember that just as somebody can rise, he can also fall.”

Yet in the last two decades inequality has increased a great deal. Isn’t mobility likely to lessen?

“Ostensibly, there is a connection. The more unequal a nation is, and if the inequality is growing, opportunities for mobility do lessen. Economists say it categorically: When inequality rises, mobility decreases.”

But it needs looking at inter-generationally, which he means to do in a new study, Yaish says, by taking employee income according to the latest survey held by Central Bureau of Statistics in 2008, and comparing it with the parents’ salaries in 1995 or in 1983.

“It’s hard to predict what the findings will be,” says Yaish. “Note that apart from wage, there are other characteristics: the level of economic development, from which country their parents came, and when all is put together, it turns out that more than inequality affects mobility. Western countries based on immigration, such as the United States or Australia, have relatively high mobility.”

Then maybe the opponents to introducing estate tax (which doesn’t exist in Israel) are right?

“Obviously estate tax is necessary, because in Israel, it’s still very important who your parents are. After all, your birth position and where you reached is only part of the story. Looking at the relationship between where you were born and your chance of getting a college degree, there seems a very strong effect.

“Let’s look at the relationship between where you were born and where you live today. Strong parents manage in various ways to bestow the class on their children. The most common way to do this is the education system. Parents hope their children will matriculate, but only 52% of students each year do. Strong parents make sure their children matriculate by sending them to private or semi-private schools plus tutoring.

“Estate tax would mitigate this trend, because it redistributes capital. It should be instated despite the openness and ability to move between classes. After all, the fact that this opening exists does not mean that everything is paradise.

“Take for instance Yitzhak Tshuva and Shari Arison. Tshuva managed to rise from the class in which he was born and certainly enjoyed the openness of Israeli society. Shari Arison on the other hand is the opposite: She inherited her status. Both live in exactly the same place now and would probably both oppose estate tax.”

However, although many young people are already third-generation Israelis, studies by Prof. Yinon Cohen show the ethnic gaps continue. Might the social protest help narrow the gaps?

Yaish sees them as a product of the middle class, not a class struggle designed to redistribute resources to achieve greater equality. It doesn’t have anything to say about estate tax, raising taxes on the rich and allowances for the unemployed; it was about what the state gives, not what it takes, he points out.

“Even Shelly Yacimovich seeks to impose estate tax from NIS 12 million. It should apply from zero,” he argues. “A welfare state has to be based on a consensus that tax should be high It can only exist on a base of consensus and solidarity: The strong agree to pay more tax so the weak are less weak.” But in Israel, there is no such consensus.”

Israelis show solidarity in times of crisis and war: It’s not rare for families under missile fire in the north or south to “leave the boundaries” of the group and stay with families in the center. But Yaish qualifies that solidarity is within the Jewish group – and even there, you probably wouldn’t find secular and Haredi families hosting one another.

Come elections, class matters less than ethnic group, Yaish says. “You look at the Mizrahim as a group and say how can it be that they don’t vote for Labor, which is ostensibly in the interest of their class. I did a study on voting patterns in 1996 and 2001, and tried to test whether the vote is a function of class or ethnicity. I found that even the weak groups have an economic interest in Likud staying in power, since the peace process has a lot of risks for the lower classes. For instance, if a textile factory moves from a development town to Jordan, the lower classes in the town will suffer. For the higher classes, peace is a rosy vision, because it means new markets will open in the Middle East.”

Also, as Prof. Daniel Gutwein showed in his studies, the lower classes have another interest in Likud remaining: the welfare state it set up in Judea and Samaria, says Yaish.

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