Wednesday, March 22nd | 29 Adar 5783

May 11, 2012 2:55 pm

How Not To Succeed

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen

An ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish man argues with a secular man during a protest against the Israeli government's attempt to curb religious laws mandated by Haredi rabbis. Photo: Maoz Israel.

The Economist of May 5th has a fascinating piece on why the Mormons, a relatively small USA religious sect, with a very strange history, have succeeded beyond their numbers in terms both political and commercial. The article gives several possible explanations.

The nineteenth century founder Joseph Smith and his followers were hounded out of communities both for heresy and unacceptable doctrines. Finally Brigham Young found them a safe haven in Utah. This sense of being outsiders and unwanted has often acted as a spur to achievement.

They have always valued material success. The Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University is one of the best in the country. They also give 10% of their incomes to the church. Mormons, men and women, are expected to spend about two years as missionaries away from home, selling a religion that sounds more unlikely than the unlikeliest brands of Christianity. I guess if you can cope with that, you can sell anything. And whereas most youngsters who take a year or two off after high school indulge themselves, Mormons, who don’t drink alcohol or coffee and are supposed to reserve sex for marriage, spend their time off dealing with difficult and unusual situations which are far more likely to teach them survival skills than the typical overindulged, over-financed, overprotected Western child. Indeed, the article suggests that it is the two-year compulsory army service most young Israelis undergo (or used to) that gives them, too, the competitive edge wherever they go around the world.

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Mormons regard creating Order Out of Chaos to be a Divine trait, the result of which is an efficient, unitary religious organization that contrasts with the ill disciplined, fractious, divided chaos that characterizes all the major world religions today. Of course it helps to be small and centralized.

Naturally I was immediately drawn to making comparisons with Jews. We too have done well commercially beyond our numbers, and we share a sense of alienation and persecution. Our religion is also commerce friendly and our history has pushed us into such areas to survive. But in our small little religion we have probably as many denominations sects, splits and variations as any of the religions who are a million times greater in number than we are. There is fierce rivalry between different communities. We have been scattered and blown around by violence. Although a common ritual and language has kept some sort of central core, the reality is that we are a potpourri of different cultures, races, nationalities, and loyalties. Apart from ultra-Orthodoxy the attrition rate is staggering, and it is hard to argue that religion plays any part, let alone defines, the success of Israeli entrepreneurs.

We are as fractious as Communists and as antiestablishment as Anarchists. So organization, cohesion, and discipline are not our fortes. But on the other hand, our record shows that it is not just in commerce that we do well; we are just as successful in virtually every area of human intellectual activity (let’s not talk about sport).

So what is the real secret of our success? Indeed, being disliked, envied, and persecuted, like the Mormons, we have learnt to be self-sufficient. We have had to pull ourselves out of the muck by our own shoestrings, with no affirmative action, no preferential treatment, no support structure, and the words of Hillel two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?”

And this is why I worry. Because we are now creating a different kind of Jew in two contrasting ways.

There is now, around the Jewish world, but mainly in Israel, a culture of religious dependence on handouts. Study is an essential part of our tradition. Study is something we are religiously bound to do throughout our lives. However, at one time everyone who studied also had to have a job. But now a whole generation has been encouraged to be entirely dependent on welfare, rich parents, or willing donors. It was never thus before or on such a grand scale. This culture of dependence can only lead to disaster.

Large numbers of Jews, religious and secular, rely either on indulgent parents or that lovely Yiddish word “Shtiklech”, fiddles. Fiddle this, fiddle that, look for a quick deal, a windfall, a lottery win, a smuggle, anything but a real career, a proper job–because in the end Ma and Pa will bail me out.

I used to argue that what gave us the edge was Talmudic training, brainpower, religious discipline, the need for self-sufficiency. But now I don’t know any more. Nothing destroys initiative like having it too easy. It is not a matter of wealth. Some wealthy families have succeeded in instilling drive and initiative and discipline. It is a matter of culture. If we change our culture from dynamic to passive, we will lose.

Thomas Friedman wrote in the NY Times this week that he does not see any new leadership in the Arab world, despite the much-trumpeted “Spring”. No up and coming leader is prepared to think out of the box, to stop blaming the West, Israel, everybody else for their woes. They all claim Islam is the answer, but to the Arab street, Islam is the handout that the Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah offer, or the subsidies the oil-rich states provide. They also want an overnight fix without changing the game plan, without struggling to improve. And they too (not unlike the Charedi world in Israel) can conjure up mass demonstrations of unemployed youngsters at the drop of a hat to bring pressure to bear to stop real change.

Perhaps that is why the Almighty is not giving us peace. Conflict is the only option left to force us to face an existential crisis. What God is telling us is to get off our butts, whether we are saints or scholars, would-be tycoons or missionaries. Remember the Israelites wanted to stay in Egypt, in comfortable slavery. They needed a push. God helps those who help themselves!


In several recent anti-Semitic remarks, acclaimed, publicly venerated Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung not only blames Jews for the ills of this world, Mossad for neo-Nazi Breivik’s massacre of a few months ago, but he also defends that notorious Czarist forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and says Jewish influence was one of the factors leading to Auschwitz. One more in the long line of Norwegian Nazi sympathizers. And you wonder why Norway is such an uncomfortable place for Jews. Time to boycott Norway.

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