Modest No More, Israelis Have Joined the Rich Man's World

I spend, therefore I am: Israelis have eagerly embraced the culture of conspicuous consumption.

When G. and A., a young couple from central Israel, decided to get married, they knew only one thing about their coming nuptials: they did not want it to be a big deal. They would do something simple, they thought, something “modest.” Only parents and siblings would be invited. Maybe also a few close friends. Instead of renting a hall and paying for a caterer and floral arrangements and a beautician, they said, they would save the money and hold the event at a nice restaurant, one of those places surrounded by woods and shaded by trees, one of those quiet places far away from civilization that look as if lit by natural candlelight. Instead of a DJ who would play dance music they didn’t like anyway, the soundtrack would be a set of their favorite songs that would be played from a little iPod hooked up to a sound system.

Just one small problem stood between them and their little dream wedding: their parents.

G. and A.’s parents weren’t willing to hear about the cute little wedding their children had planned. They had attended enough grandiose and scarily expensive weddings in their lifetime to understand what G. and A. were too young and too naive to understand: that a wedding in Israel in 2013 is either done large or not done at all. And that a small wedding tells people one of two things about you: A: you’re poor; or B: you’re cheap.

The parents of the happy couple were not CEOs and did not hold high-ranking public positions, but they were senior enough to be of a social standing that comes with a series of obligations, and the upcoming event placed an enormous amount of pressure on them. “You only get married once,” they explained to the young couple, but really meant that they would only have one chance to play the hosts at the lavish wedding of their dreams.

In this instance, G. and A. were both only children, and in their parents’ eyes this was the one-time-only opportunity to say to their hundreds of guests and to the entire world: Yeah, we’ve got it, too, and plenty of it.

And so it was that in no time at all, G. and A.’s wedding spun out of their control and swelled to the proportions of a decadent gala celebration a royal family would have been proud of. Like Cinderella’s night out, every detail was upgraded to its bigger and more expensive version: The restaurant became a sumptuously appointed hangar, vast enough to absorb the number of guests, which climbed from 50 to 500; the iPod was supplanted by a top DJ, who charged thousands of shekels; 50 waiters and waitresses ‏(plus ushers‏) served upward of 50 dishes, not including the bite-sized desserts that were served to the guests individually, or the designer chocolates that were distributed to each guest at the entrance. The champagne flowed freely, as did the doves that were released heavenward after the glass was broken and the fireworks were set off. It was a gorgeous wedding, everyone said.

Both G. and A. came from altogether average economic backgrounds. By any criterion, they were no more than classic Israeli middle class. To finance the wedding, their parents took out close to NIS 150,000 in loans − on each side. Fortunately, they could choose from among countless offers of loans made by the country’s banks to young marrieds like them: “instant credit,” offered by Bank Hapoalim to couples getting married; “wedding upgrade loans” of up to NIS 80,000 with 60 monthly payments, available from Bank Discount; and hundreds of other sites that offer quick loans to the happy couple. You don’t even need co-signers. This essential credit is what enables the event industry in Israel to generate revenues of NIS 5.5 billion annually.

Economic crisis? Middle-class collapse? Not when it comes to those times when you simply cannot afford to be modest.

The troubled tycoons

But the wedding, a monumental affair toward which all Israeli dreams and illusions flow, is only part of the story. A straight line may be drawn between the dream of A. and G.’s parents to be princes and princesses for a night, and financially troubled real estate tycoon Moti Zisser, who is currently showing how difficult it is to be a full-time prince. It is estimated that the real estate mogul paid somewhere between NIS 45 and 55 million to build his colossal compound in Petah Tikva, which stretches over eight dunams ‏(two acres‏), and includes 3,000 square meters ‏(33,000 square feet‏) of living space. He did it, in part, with the management fees amounting to NIS 108 million that he drew from Elbit Imaging.

Before he made it to the big time, Zisser was just another kid from a simple home in Bnei Brak. Now, the boy who moved up from the Hasidic world to become a real-estate tycoon is facing receivership.

The golden thread that ties together the case of A. and G., and Zisser, and between them and the head of the troubled IDB empire, Nochi Dankner, who for years bought and sold companies and assets and flew around the world in a private plane before ending up in bankruptcy, is our − we Israelis − attitude to money. It took only 20 or 30 years to transform the place of Mammon in the public discourse, to a place where only few other values, if any, can be compared to it.

Hardly anyone would argue with the idea that once upon a time it was a little less comfortable for us − middle-class and tycoons alike − to enjoy our wealth in public and a little less socially acceptable to flaunt it. It is sufficient to take a quick glance at the modest apartment in the modest apartment building in
Ramat Hasharon − a German-Jewish immigrant building in a German-Jewish immigrant neighborhood, well-to-do but simple, at the upper band of the spectrum but not in the stratosphere − where Eli Hurvitz, the late CEO of Teva Pharmaceuticals, lived most of his life. For what is the substantive difference between the cases of A. and G., Zisser and Dankner? What is the difference between a tycoon who bought a private plane with money he didn’t have, and a family that amasses debts of hundreds of thousands of shekels to underwrite an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime evening for their children?

The amounts may vary, but the leveraging is the same. When there was a hole in the old pre-state Grush coin (as an old Israeli song nostalgically says), everything was simpler. Or at least, that’s what we like to think. Once, our attitude toward money was different. We were humble about it. We saved it. You could say that it was almost forbidden to touch − we were embarrassed by it and by the comfort that it could afford us.

In those days, a wedding was just a wedding. Industrialists were like other people, and a public-housing apartment was the essence of the bourgeois dream of having made it, not the luxury housing estate on the beach. The pressures were a lot smaller, as were the debts.

As a consequence of the incessant chase to demonstrate their wealth, there is almost no one in Israel these days who does not live beyond his means. From 2009 to 2012, according to a study conducted by Ofer Klein, head of the economics and research department at Harel Insurance and Finance, the household debt in Israel grew by an average of 9.4 percent each year. The annual disposable income during this same period increased by only 6.6 percent.

It started in the ‘80s

So when exactly did our attitude toward money change? When did we stop being embarrassed by it, and start to flaunt it? And when exactly did we begin to not only spend the money that we had but also − and mainly − the money we didn’t have?

Most experts agree that the seeds of “the calamity” were planted somewhere in the 1980s, during the process of liberalization of the Israeli economy. Those were the gay old days of finance minister Yoram Aridor, when the color television and the VCR became status symbols. The economic stabilization program of 1985 represented more than anything else the transition from a social-democratic welfare state to a neo-liberal state.

The year 1985 was a turning point in the Israeli economy, which moved from a Mapai centralized socialist economy to a free-market economy. The privatization policy whose buds began to be seen in those years created Israeli economic elites, but along with them an Israeli bourgeois mentality. Stabilization of the currency, following years of hyperinflation, also led to years of stabilization of the economy, which in turn expanded the economy and triggered a sharp increase in the standard of living.

Prof. Oz Almog, a sociologist at the University of Haifa, says, “There’s no specific moment at which the attitude to money changed. It was a prolonged process. A chain of reactions. The spearhead of the process in the 1980s was the banks. All of a sudden, it turned out that you could buy new things and gain wealth through investments and loans. And a great deal of money flowed into the economy.

“The mere fact that you could use your overdraft to buy things changes the rules of the game. The bank accounts of numerous families began to grow, not only because the market was opened, but because the second generation of immigrants is a generation of independent women; they entered the labor market by the masses, acquired education, and suddenly there were two respectable salaries coming into the home,” Almog points out. “These are the years during which the price of very expensive high-ticket goods began to decrease, and the Western models of marketing and consumption began to take over. The advent of the enormous supermarkets, for example. This was also the start of short vacations in Turkey. The Israelis got infected with the casino bug. The masses of gamblers and noise of jingling coins settled in the minds of many people,” he says.

In the early 90s, Almog explains, the change in attitude toward money further accelerated. “When Israeli society began moving in the direction of an affluent, entrepreneurial society, the changes took place quickly: the prosperity that descended on everyone, the proliferation of shopping malls, the newly developed neighborhoods, the trips abroad and the duty-free psychosis turned into a ravenous orgy of consumption − the vacations in hotels in Israel and in
Turkey and in Greece. And we became increasingly similar to the American culture. It goes without saying that development of the advertising sector was a significant catalyst, primarily when it is carried on multichannel television. The daily newspapers began to venerate wealth and the wealthy, and the benchmark by which we judge one’s success became how much money he had. Look at what happened to the financial supplements and business dailies. Once they were a marginal section of the newspaper. But from the ‘90s onward, supplements, columns and news about economics and consumption claimed much more space and stature.”

Blame it on America?

Many people feel that the Americanization of Israeli society is to blame for this veneration of money. The common wisdom is that in place of the old centralized socialist model on which Israel used to rely, during the 1980s the country began to espouse the hedonistic American model, and became a consumer society in which the purchase of things is a reflection of one’s social status, personal happiness, professional belonging and even character.

However, not all of the blame can be assigned to Americanization, according to Dr. Gadi Taub of the Hebrew University School for Public Policy. He contends that the change is a direct outcome of Zionism, no less.

“Zionism, as a revolution, sought to restore the Jews to the material world,” he says. “That means, first and foremost, a return to politics and history. It was explained that the Jews would be responsible for their fate and are not only victims of circumstances created by others. But it went beyond that − because the struggle of Zionism against the ethos of the purity of being in exile, in which the Jew lives in a world of the spiritual and scorns the material, also became a struggle to return to the physical and the corporeal in the private sense.

“The new Jew, as opposed to the heroes of Yiddish literature or even Woody Allen, has power, not only brains. And he was also reconnected to the sensual and to the sexual. I think that as part of the idea of ‘Let us live in this country’ − the battle cry of the General Zionists − was the notion ‘Let me enjoy life in this country.’ That went against the ascetic ethos of Mapai [the forerunner of today’s Labor Party]. Success in the material world is also an expression of a deep current within Zionism. What’s new, or what has taken on an American form, is that the whole project has channeled itself into avenues of individualism that we’ve adopted from other sources, primarily American sources,” Taub notes.

The increase in prestige of the new middle class was born in the wake of the economic revolution of 1985. The fact that this class has grown much wealthier in the subsequent three decades is, of course, directly related to this matter. We waste more − because we have more to waste. We flaunt our wealth more − because now, unlike in the years of austerity and of hyperinflation − we have greater wealth to flaunt.

“I think that one of the reasons money has taken on the appearance of the be-all and end-all, both here and elsewhere in the Western world, is the development of the new middle class, including new immigrants,” says Almog. “This is a huge population sector that grew wealthy in a short period of time. We went through processes first of the popularization of luxuries and then of their banalization.

“Things that used to be the province of the minority, such as flying abroad, staying in hotels, dining in restaurants, hanging out in cafes, buying brand-name clothes − or knock-offs − and purchasing electrical gadgets, have become accessible. The abundance spiraled upward,” Almog asserts. “The nouveau riche tends to consume disproportionately and to be dazzled by material enticements. It lacks the restraint of the old and more experienced money. Here in Israel, and throughout the world, a stratum of millions of people evolved that was gripped by rampant consumerism. The retailers and marketers tempt them and fill them with stuff they don’t need. The nouveau riche is also in the grip of the ‘Look at me’ syndrome, which is why you see the ostentatious consumption and the grandiose family celebrations, the outrageous waste and the narcissistic hedonism.

“If there’s one thing I hate,” continues Almog, “it’s the overworked word lefanek, to pamper. Once it was a word of disgrace. You didn’t like pampered people. Today, everyone wants to pamper and to be pampered. And it costs a great deal of money, money that you don’t always have,” he says.

Fewer restraints

“Israel is indeed a wealthy society,” adds Oz Almog. “We’re situated very high up on the scale of standard of living. But that does not contradict the fact that people here live above their means. The nouveaux riches have fewer restraints and less refinement, including in areas that have nothing to do with consumption, and it’s easy to manipulate them. Buying considerations here are highly emotional.

“Also, don’t forget that here in Israel you don’t get punished for having an overdraft. In the United States, they’ll close your account and you’re branded with a mark of Cain. Socially speaking, going into debt is not conceived as an unethical act, even though in many instances it most certainly is. People continue to pursue their future and the future of their children from an irrational and self-centered point of view,” Almog adds.

Gadi Taub, on the other hand, prefers to see reasons aside from hedonism for the shift in our attitude to money. “Money in the profit world of capitalism is an index of the degree of social utility. In the world of supply and demand, it is assumed that the magnitude of your profit depends on the extent to which the goods you produce are needed or wanted. Theoretically, your money is proof not only of your talent, but of the measure of usefulness you bring to society.

“And there’s another dimension at work here. In a dynamic immigrant society, the criteria determining an individual’s status are fragile. We don’t have an aristocracy here, in the European sense, so the way to establish status is what the 19th-century American sociologist Thorstein Veblen labeled ‘conspicuous consumption.’ If your bank account is the only proof of your status, then you wave it around, by spending your money in as conspicuous a manner as possible, as wastefully as possible,” Taub says.

And what if our changed attitude to money does not derive from the fact that we’ve become wealthier or more hedonistic, but because we want to become wealthier and more hedonistic, and paradoxically believe that we can have more money if we waste more money? In other words, what if our new attitude to money stems from the fact that consumption is our job right now, and without it we will suffer social ostracism, professional paralysis or low self-esteem?

Prof. Danny Gutwein, a social historian in the University of Haifa’s History of the Jewish People Department, discounts the moral sermonizing in which we often engage vis-a-vis our and other people’s money.

“The claim that Israelis are nouveau riche because they show off their money was already being made as early as the 1960s.

"It bears an element of moralizing, of moral preachiness. “The interesting question,” continues Gutwein, “is how it happened in an increasingly polarized society that the conspicuous display of wealth and of money grew disproportionately, to the extent that it’s turning into something that even people who lack money feel the need to do. The increased display of wealth in the past few years is occurring at the same time as the growing gap in the equality of income distribution.”

Gutwein sees the transition from the welfare state to the neo-liberal economy of today as the beginning of the shift in Israelis’ attitude toward money. “We’re making our lives increasingly commercialized; therefore, we express ourselves increasingly through the expenditure of money. The function of the welfare state was to make things less and less like merchandise. Labor was not merchandise back then. The practice of medicine was not merchandise. Education was not merchandise. Today we are living in a period that turns everything into merchandise.

We are merchandise, too.

“For example, take young people who spend practically everything they earn, and live at a standard of living that is practically irrational when compared to their income. As a grumpy old man, you could say ‘That’s unethical,’ but the truth is they’re doing the right thing for the system in which they’re living, which says that there is no value aside from money. The more you show off your wealth, the more you become a part of the system. Thus, you adopt the system in which you are operating. A consequence is that the more you spend, the more opportunity you have to earn more. Showing the money becomes a significant part of your perpetual self-marketing ability. Through this sleight of hand − spending money you don’t really have − perhaps you can create a chance for yourself.”

Gutwein states that our changed attitude toward money and its public display does not stem from our being pampered or pampering, hedonistic or aspiring to be so. The real reason is that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that if we can act like the rich and successful, we’ll become rich and successful. Dressing the part, if you will.

“You start relating to all of your life experience as a means of earning a living. You turn yourself into a means of production. For most people, monetary expenditure has lost the show-off and hedonism aspects, and has become a means of production. You sit at a restaurant not to enjoy the food, but so as to be seen in the right place. Just as you’re available 24 hours a day, you’re also a brand that’s up for sale 24 hours a day. You have to understand that anyone who shows off his money is part of a place that absolutely commercializes the human experience. He has become the complete market animal.”

Darwinist struggle

The consequence of this state of mind, says Gutwein, is that if money is a means of control, showing off money is an attempt to say, “I’m part of the ruling regime.” For instance, he continues, there was “a time when the right to housing was not only part of the market, but part of the social order. It’s not that there was no demand or yearning for incredible apartments. But the incredible apartment had a completely different place in the social order.

“Now, the display of wealth has turned into part of the Darwinist struggle. I live in a high-rise tower; therefore, I am part of the ruling regime. I show my high-rise tower address − and people relate to me with a certain unease. They attribute to me powers that I may or may not possess. The fact that I’m making the most spectacular wedding, in the most prestigious hall, is a matter of displaying control, of branding myself in a place of power. The fact that we have to know that the judge bought an apartment for $10 million and the politician bought for $40 million and the journalist for $20 million is a delineation of control, because in a society in which money is the main principle, it is an admission that we’ve lost the entire social dimension and allowed the market to control everything,” says Gutwein.

The big question is whether at the end of the day, there is any chance at all of turning back the clock. Or is it that we have been sentenced to live forever in a frustrating vicious circle of empty gestures of exhibiting wealth that will never satisfy us, because there will forever be someone wealthier and more successful.

According to Gutwein, the only solution is a return to the welfare state. “The welfare state reduces the commercialization of various realms of life. The problem is that when we speak of the welfare state, we discuss only its economic values and we forget what it does to the individual’s worldview when he understands that someone will care for him in his old age.

“What the neo-liberal propaganda succeeded in doing is to completely demolish that foundation that is social and decent and that possesses solidarity, which gives people the opportunity to look at their lives without the consumerist aspect. The solution, therefore, is not modesty, but greater socialization.”

Yael Bogen
Tomer Appelbaum