February 28, 2023 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel.
The concept of “elite” or “elites” is much vilified these days. One can safely assume that it has never been popular with ordinary people who disliked the notion that, to use the Cambridge English Dictionary’s definition, there is a group of people that is “the richest, most powerful and best educated, or best trained in a society.”
It seems, however, that this term has become even less popular with the emergence of populist movements that seek to gain the support of the “forgotten men and women” by eliciting resentment toward the urbanites, the college-educated, and other perceived elites that regard their fellow citizens with a sense of condescension and even contempt.
The targeted elite has kept chiefly silent, appearing to concede the argument to its detractors.
Outside Israel, the term elite is repeatedly used against Jews, who are blamed for modern society’s actual or presumed ailments, such as income inequality, globalism, and immigration.
However, the hostility towards the elite has not skipped Israel, where political parties have sought to cultivate long-held grievances against those who allegedly look down on their less educated or economically fortunate fellow citizens.
Before the State of Israel was born, the pioneers who endeavored to build the Zionist enterprise regarded themselves as the vanguard (i.e., elite), laying the foundations for a future Jewish state, including creating a new Hebrew culture, without which no nation-building would have been complete.
In Israel’s earlier years, military service was one of the few outlets for Israel’s best and brightest. The IDF’s general staff that led the army to its remarkable victory in the Six-Day War included people who, under different circumstances, could have easily made it to the top of the country’s financial sector or academia. Today, the opportunities for talented young Israelis are much more abundant, yet the top echelons of the army and defense establishment still attract part of the elite.
The recent strike by hundreds of high-tech workers called attention to their contribution to Israel’s highly successful economy. This elite group accounts for some 50 percent of the country’s total exports and 15 percent of the country’s GDP. In addition, the ten percent of Israelis working in high-tech pay some 25 percent of the country’s total income tax.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, hundreds of thousands of new immigrants came to Israel, mostly from Arab countries. Their absorption has been one of Israel’s most outstanding achievements. In one generation, children of immigrants who arrived without adequate means, education, or vocation became part of the new Israeli middle class.
However, that process was carried out in a way that made many newcomers frequently feel unwelcome and humiliated. Furthermore, a portion of the new immigrants and their descendants has never achieved social mobility and remained on the margins of society.
It is against this backdrop that a sense of resentment has risen toward the elites – i.e., the old Ashkenazi establishment, the kibbutzniks (although the kibbutz movement has been in decline for years), and those living in urban areas, especially the “Tel Aviv bubble” – who, allegedly, continue to display condescension toward those living in Israel’s “periphery.”
Having arrived in Israel from India in the late 1950s, my family moved to a kibbutz in Northern Israel, where I grew up. In those days, the kibbutz was part of the Israeli elite, but that term was defined as an additional responsibility, not a privilege. The relative number of Kibbutzniks among elite IDF units, and, tragically, among IDF casualties in Israel’s wars, far exceeded their numbers in the population. So intense was the pressure to live up to the standards of the elite that failure to meet the expectations led, in some cases, to suicide.
The Israeli society that absorbed new immigrants in the country’s earlier years was not perfect, nor was that society’s elite. Mistakes were certainly made. Yet the process of immigrating to a new country, be it Israel or any other country, is inherently traumatic, regardless of the errors committed.
In June 2017, addressing graduates of Shalem College in Jerusalem, the late Israeli poet Haim Gouri referred to the concept of the elite. First, he said, “there is no people without an elite that is drawn from within the people, in all those fields that influence its character, its culture, and its life.” He then added:
"In our case, the term 'elite' was understood to mean, at its base, 'Ashkenazi,' of the sort that belongs to the upper echelons of power in Israel and is entirely aloof from the nation. There is nothing further from the truth. Here is another definition: An ‘elite’ is a group of individuals that contributes in different ways to culture, to national strength, and to universal values, and lives a deeply moral existence at the heart of its society."
I strongly agree with Gouri’s aspirational definition.
Aaron Jacob is American Jewish Committee (AJC) Director of Diplomatic Affairs. From 1998-2002, he served as Israel’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN at the rank of ambassador.