An Economic Game Plan for American Jewry

At a time of general uncertainty about the economy and the state of global markets, what roles can Jews play in fostering conservations about America’s future and in promoting a new economic agenda?

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

The economic reports remain at best problematic on the health of the American economy. A number of core facts seem to provide a basis for concern:

  1. America’s young people are poorly educated and now rank 20th or worse in international rankings of proficiency in science and math.
  2. The nation’s infrastructure is in serious need of repair and upgrade.
  3. More than one-half of American patents are now granted to foreigners.
  4. Median income within the United States has barely risen in two decades.
  5. The last year the United States enjoyed a trade surplus was in 1975 ($12,400 million), in March of this year (2012) our trade deficit was $51.8 billion.
  6. The United States ranks 9th among the countries rated on the basis of “best quality of life” with countries such as Australia, Germany, Canada and Sweden, now ranked ahead of us.
  7. The United States in 2010 was listed 18th among the world’s economies based on GNP per capita, falling behind Norway, Sweden and Switzerland and fifteen other countries.

At a time when this nation’s economy and long term business interests are being challenged by global competition as well as by an uncertain domestic environment, it would seem appropriate for the Jewish community to engage in a conversation about the economic future.

At the outset, we should note from historical experience that in declining or troubled economies, there has been a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism. In difficult economic circumstances, there is the potential for political upheaval, where individuals and groups seek to appoint blame.

A Jewish economic game plan ought to be the basis of a future national conversation, as Jews have a significant and long term stake in this nation’s financial welfare. The engagement of the Jewish community in focusing attention to and action on economic issues will serve the interests of the larger society as well. Attention to the economy has certain direct implications for Israel and its close business connections and security ties with the United States.

Jewish tradition itself speaks to the principles of ethical business principles and practices. In such areas as referenced below, one finds Jewish commentaries and Bible injunctions reflecting on ethical conduct:

  • Honest Weights and Measures: Leviticus 19: 35-36: “You shall not act unjustly, in measures of length, weight, or volume. Just scales, just weights, just dry measures, and just liquid measures you shall have.”
  • Conflict of Interest: Numbers 32:22, “And you shall be innocent before God and Israel.”
  • Transparency: Exodus: 38:21-31 “These are the accounts of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Testimony, as they were calculated according to the commandment of Moses…”
  • Bribery: Exodus 23:8, “Do not accept a bribe” and Deuteronomy 16:19, “Do not pervert judgment.”
  • Deception: Leviticus (25:14): “When you sell anything to your neighbor, or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another,” also, Geneivat da’at (theft of an idea) from Mishneh Torah, Laws of Selling 18, Maimonides) and the concept of Ona’ah (price fraud or overcharging).

Historically, Jews understood the importance of the financial and social well-being of the societies in which they resided. Throughout the middle ages, despite severe legal and economic restrictions placed on them by church hierarchy and feudal rulers, Jews were often consulted by government officials concerning matters of trade and taxation.

In modern times Jews have played key roles in various countries advising politicians and public officials over fiscal policy, serving as economists and public policy specialists for government agencies and the private sector, directing nonprofit institutions, and reporting on and writing about business trends. In addition, Jews have been prominent leaders serving major corporations, developing start-up businesses, heading labor unions, and managing investment and hedge funds.

Historical Focus:

There is an absence of quality research on the contributions and role of Jews in developing economic theory and practice; in promoting the trade union movement; in advancing worker rights, job safety standards, and related public policy procedures and laws; in growing the world of business and technology as investors, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Similarly, there is an absence of research associated with the economic history of the Jewish people throughout the centuries.

An Economic Educational Initiative:

Jewish students ought to understand four core elements of this story, namely, the contributions of Judaism to ethical economic and business practices; the economic history of the Jewish people; contributions of Jews to economic principles and policy; and the role that Israel plays today in promoting technological innovation, international trade and business, and economic development initiatives in third countries.

Investment Clubs and Networks:

The Jewish community ought to foster the creation and growth of investment clubs, designed to stimulate and advance new business and technology initiatives, designed to promote investment opportunities within the United States and in Israel. Individual Jewish investors as well as communal and national organizations should focus their energies on creating investor networks where individuals involved in different areas of financing might be able to participate in such core growth areas as technology and communications, alternative energy resources, food production, and the recycling of materials.

National Jewish Economic Summit:

Just as our agencies regularly address social policy priorities; it is now time for our national and local institutions to focus on economic policies, whether offering input on tax policy, job creation and investment strategies, or recommending budgetary proposals and cost savings options. Along with other citizens, Jews are clearly concerned about the state of this nation’s economic position. Such conversations ought to be happening at the community level, just as they must occur on the national scene. Hosting debates and educational forums would add to the flow of ideas that now ought to be a part of the Jewish communal agenda.

Investment Bank and R&D Fund:

What if our federations and national institutions joining together with private foundations and individual investors in order to sponsor an Investment Bank that would have as its mandate the seeding of new programs and helping to sustain on-going institutions and projects. Rebuilding and strengthening the American Jewish infrastructure not only serves to re-energize our community but will spark new employment and investment opportunities. This type of banking structure can be an important resource to the State of Israel, working in partnership with the State of Israel Bonds and the Jewish National Fund, among others, by investing in Israel’s long term growth. A portion of the core funds would be channeled through an R&D (research and development) Fund designed to seed certain activities and underwrite research. Creating such a framework for funding may well challenge other investors and donors to generate resources in loaning funds to seed new ventures or providing initial or sustaining grants both inside and outside of the Jewish community.

It would appear that at this time of economic disparity and uncertainty creating a Jewish response would be warranted. The ideas introduced above are designed to serve as a beginning point for such a communal conversation.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College. His writings can be found on his website,thewindreport.com.

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