The peregrinations of actor Gerard Depardieu should be of interest to all those concerned with issues of Jewish identity – not because Depardieu is Jewish. Depardieu is Russian, nee French. But because of the recent changes in French tax laws that raised the rate of taxation for the wealthy to 75% of earned income, Depardieu departed France for the more attractive tax rates of Russia. To put it bluntly, money was more important to Depardieu than birth, citizenship, patriotism and social responsibility. The ladder of his priorities put preservation of personal wealth ahead of all other matters, mirroring how many Jews make decisions today.
Of course Depardieu is not alone. There are other Frenchmen who have also packed their bags and closed their substantial bank accounts to move away. But Depardieu, an actor of some considerable fame – he was once nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cyrano, puts a public face on the issue. He has been roundly criticized by many and warned by others that Russian citizenship may not be all that is desirable in life: it comes with some risks attached, particularly in matter of human rights and free speech. But where he ends up is less important that what he gives up.
During the First and Second World Wars, the American tax rate rose to 77% and 94% respectively of earned income of the wealthiest citizens. But there was no wave of emigrants who took their fortunes and relocated. What American millionaires lost in net income they gained in pride that they were doing their share in supporting their country at war. Tax rates for the wealthy remained especially high even during the Eisenhower administration after World War II. But that was the price of the reconstruction of Europe and the rehabilitation of returning American soldiers. It seems that there is historical precedence of people willing to put other interests ahead of their own. But those days have been largely forgotten and those values largely replaced by other concerns.
The high costs of being Jewish today have put many Jews in North America in untenable positions. Even those who are financially successful can barely afford the cumulative expense of paying for day school tuition, kosher food, synagogue dues, summer camps, JCC membership, holiday observances and still allow for charitable giving. Given that no real reduction in expenses can be expected any time soon, something has to “give.” One consequence is the measurable decline in Jewish philanthropy. Jack Wertheimer recently noted that 40% of non-Orthodox Jews, according to reliable statistics, report that thy have not given a dime to any Jewish causes during the previous year. For Jews who are less successful, the financial pressures and the concomitant dilemmas are even more severe. Without the wherewithal to support every – or any – Jewish desideratum, individual and families are forced to rank their needs and set their goals. For a growing number of Jews, living in a large, affordable home outranks living in a smaller, more expensive home in a Jewish neighborhood. For others, surrendering formal Jewish education of their children is a way of making ends meet.
How Jews – particularly young Jews – will choose where and how to live, with what institutions to affiliate, and, most importantly, what ranks higher than the preservation of personal wealth will ultimately determine the future of North American Jewry.