Friday, December 10, 2010

A Nation of Schnorrers

Each year on Chanukah, Orot (where I work) takes the entire administrative staff on a tiyyul. (It's a rather nice perk - a great day, and a fascinating tiyyul. We always hire a rather popular tour guide named Elyada bar Shaul, who sadly, speaks almost no English, and speaks Hebrew so fast that an American wouldn't follow. But he's truly a terrific tour guide. But I digress. You can see a tour of his following the footsteps of Rav Aryeh Levine here.) The tour, which followed some of the military activities of the Eshel and Lechi during the British Mandate immediately preceding the creation of the Jewish State, began at Kikar Safra and wound its way through some of the neighboring areas.
Towards the end of the tour, we wound our way through the back edge of Me'ah She'arim. I was lagging behind at that point, and was speaking with someone when I caught up to the group. As we passed through the street, I noticed an elderly Chareidi man, with a long, dirty black coat, white beard and his hand out, collecting money.
When the group passed him without making a donation, he turned to us and yelled angrily (in Hebrew), "Not one of you! Not one of you gave anything!" What was he collecting for? He didn't really say. Yet, it seemed clear that because we took the liberty of walking in his streets (ours too), he felt that we owed him a donation. His indignation at our unwillingness to give him money indicated his clear expectation - not so much that we would give - but that we should.
This, I imagine, is not an unusual story. Anyone who has tried to pray at the Kotel has had, I'm sure, a very similar experience. I daresay that this same event takes place in many shuls around the world. I walked away from the man without any sense of guilt. He might feel that I owe him money, but I certainly do not. But this tiny episode illustrated to me a much larger issue that our country needs to face following the recent fires in the North.
Following the devastating fires in the Carmel region last week, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a rather controversial blog post (also here) that garnered a great deal of attention. Goldberg essentially argued that while giving money to victims of the fire is an important act (and he did), giving money to the JNF to pay for fire engines only enables Israel to continue to make bad choices.
Let us be clear: there's never enough money to have everything that you want. Budgeting, whether in our homes, our communities, or an entire country, is about making a series of difficult choices about what we want vs. what we need. (Truth be told, the United States is notoriously bad about these kinds of choices. Why else would it be borrowing money from China to give tax cuts to rich people?) The State of Israel can afford fire engines. The reason it never bought more fire engines, or newer ones, or cooler one, is because we've never had a terrible fire like this one before. It has always rained much earlier in the year. The ground was wet (or at least damp) for much of the summer. And most of the buildings in this country are made of stone or concrete. Sure, houses burn, but not entire buildings. You almost never hear of major fires like the ones that occur in the United States.
Moreover, after the fire the Israeli government allocated 2,500 shekel to every person in the North displaced by the fire, at a total cost of 60 million shekel. Imagine that the government had spend that 60 million shekel on firefighting equipment this year. It's impossible to know whether we would have had the fire under control earlier and saved all that money later on. But the money is somehow there (some other need won't be met this year). We just didn't want to spend it on fire trucks.
So, whether correctly or incorrectly, no one making budget choices felt that the possibility of a major fire should take precedence over another choice. So we bought parks, and schools, and roads and numerous other things that a country wants and needs, instead of buying fire trucks. As an aside, we also bought gas masks for the entire population of Israel. I picked up ours last week. One can only imagine how much the Israeli government spends buying and distributing them. In essence the government made a choice: what is the likelihood of a gas or chemical attack on the civilian population, versus the likelihood of a major forest fire? I'm not sure that we chose wrong.
After the fire, it's clear that we need fire trucks. The only question is, who should pay for them? And is there a problem with asking Jews from the Diaspora to fund infrastructure that the government should itself provide?
On some level, the answer is clearly "no." We have no problem with the fact that private individuals fund the construction of hospitals, parks, schools, and numerous other buildings that dot the country. People should give. They should donate to build the State of Israel. But, at the same time, we need to understand that Israel didn't neglect to buy fire trucks because it couldn't. Rather, the lack of necessary equipment resulted from a choice that we made - a bad choice, but a choice nonetheless. And asking Jews of the world to pay for our bad choices only encourages us to make the same choices down the road.
I think that was Goldberg's point. We're no longer the Israel of the 1950's, where we really can't afford to supply even basic needs. This is a thriving, growing, vibrant society, with wireless 3g internet service (albeit spotty), great kosher restaurants and a solid economy, which in truth is probably in better shape than that of the United States. (There is a shortage of butter now, but no one's sure why.)
Of course we need the help of Diaspora Jewry. And of course Jews from around the world should feel the desire and need to help the State of Israel grow and prosper. But I keep coming back to that Jew in Me'ah She'arim. He chose a certain lifestyle - where exclusive Torah study precludes the possibility of gainful employment. And yet now, he expects me to pay for it.
Sorry. I didn't make that choice for myself, nor for him, and his expectations notwithstanding, I will give tzedakah, but not to support what I consider to be inappropriate choices with which I do not agree.
We need not be a Nation of Schnorrers, with our hands out at every turn, looking for money to solve every problem. When Jews around the world stop seeing Israel as the poor, downtrodden Jew, but instead as the bustling Jewish wonder which is the greatest incubator for Judaism since Biblical times, they will give. But not because they feel guilty, and not because someone yelled at them. They'll give because they understand that giving to Israel is the best investment that they can make in the future of the Jewish people.