U.S. Jews need to decide if they are tourists in Israel, or extended family

Ha’aretz 5/23/13

Israelis, understandably, are being consumed by the budget negotiations that are currently taking place. The global economic slowdown has finally hit and like every other country Israel is facing thought decisions about what to cut from the budget to handle the deficit.

Israel has a pretty complex relationship with her Diaspora at the best of times. Some groups, such as Women of the Wall, use Diaspora support in order to turbo-charge their campaigns. Others clearly tell Jews living abroad that their opinions should stay abroad as well.

When it comes to laws around religious pluralism and immigration, many Israelis feel that Diaspora Jews have ‘skin in the game’ and therefore have a right to comment on what Israel chooses to do or not to do. When it comes to the budget, the vast majority of Israelis would maintain that if you don’t pay tax you should not get a say.

So it was interesting last week that the conference of Jewish Presidents called on Yair Lapid not to charge VAT on tourists as it “would add significantly to the cost for tourists and will, we fear, cause many to reconsider, postpone, or even cancel trips to Israel.”

While I understand that the costs may go up, if people’s affiliations to Israel are merely linked to how cheap it is to travel there, the U.S. Jewish connection to Israel is in a far bigger crisis then we previously thought.

The U.S. Jewish community undoubtedly has contributed millions of dollars to the Israeli tourism industry and, through Birthright, it has created a new generation of returning tourists. But giving tourists a vote on how Israel makes up its budget gap seems counterintuitive.

It makes sense for Israel’s Tourism Ministry to object to this budget shift. Tourists themselves don’t seem to mind the impending increase in costs. What I find odd is that the U.S. Jewish community is using its clout as the Diaspora to try and have a voice as tourists.

Lapid does not have any easy choices but charging those who have the resources to travel abroad to visit the country seems to be a better way of plugging the hole then cutting welfare to the neediest. While tourism is a massive sector within the Israeli economy the majority of travelers are going not due to the cheapness of the country (already the eighth most expensive in the world according to World Eonomic Forum) but due to it being the Holy Land.

Why should Israelis who earn far less than the American Jews who visit have to subsidize hotels and souvenirs for tourists. Giving directly to the Israeli taxation system is a better way to help and support Israel, in this regard, than U.S. Jews giving indirect taxation to Israel through the myriad of different Israeli welfare charities that are dependent on them.

It’s unclear whether the Conference of Presidents hoped their letter would sway Lapid’s mind more than the government ministers who sit around him, all of which are looking to protect their slice of the pie. I’m happy that they failed though. As Israel goes through this difficult period of austerity the rest of the Jewish people who choose to visit can contribute their part to try and ease the suffering of the worst of within Israel. That’s what being a family is all about.



Forget cutting subsidies to ultra-Orthodox; focus on settlers

Ha’aretz 3/14/13

A few weeks ago, I spent Shabbat with a friend of mine in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The shul he belongs to reminds me more of a yeshiva than the one I normally frequent but, nevertheless, I felt at home among the hats and coats. The rabbi’s speech was of particular interest. Toward the end, he commented on the Israeli election and ongoing coalition talks, warning that his community should be vigilant against those “who would attack the Torah way of life and give in to Arabs who want to destroy us.”

Saving the yeshivot has become synonymous with saving the settlements in the mind of many Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora. This has occurred due to the longstanding coalition partnerships between Likud and the rightwing and ultra-Orthodox parties. Their joint governments have traditionally been a one-stop shop for supporting a conservative social agenda as well as West Bank settlements.

But with the ultra-Orthodox parties cleaving from the political right in Israel’s incoming government, those who support both values find themselves at a crossroad.

The gloves came off when Shas declared it was willing to evacuate settlements, and Moshe Gafni, the ultra-Orthodox chair of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, revealed the true amount that the state has spent on settlements.

This new political environment forces a divide between those who support the conservative parties who have declared war on the settlement enterprise, like Shas, and those who support the alliance between national religious Habayit Hayehudi and centrist Yesh Atid, which aims to challenge the make up of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Particularly, this new political environment forces us to choose between whom we wish to support economically: the ultra-Orthodox, or the settlers.

Both sectors guzzle massive sums of Israeli tax funds, and while in an ideal world both issues would be addressed simultaneously, realistically, the Israeli government will probably have to start with one. If it were up to me, I would start with the settlements. Why?

There is no doubt that the ultra-Orthodox pose grave demographic challenges in Israel. According to The Metzilah Center, by 2028, 33 percentof Jewish children in Israel will be ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox employment figures lag a good 40 percent behind the rest of the population, according to an OECD report. This situation needs to improve – and quickly.

Unlike the settlements, however, there are signs that the problem has been understood and steps have been taken to addresses it. Between 2009 and 2013, employment went up by 6 percent in the sector, and there has been a huge push through both state and philanthropic endeavors to get the ultra-Orthodox into the workplace.

Importantly, the global Diaspora has a vital role in helping integrate the ultra-Orthodox. Both the American and European Jewish communities have large ultra-Orthodox communities that work and are generally sustainable. There is a unique opportunity to learn the lessons of the global Jewish Diaspora and apply it to Israel. The solutions exist and there are many willing to help out on this problem.

Unlike the problems of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlement challenges are not trending in the right direction. While there are, of course, many issues that stand in the way of a final status agreement with the Palestinians, there are none as self destructive and wasteful as the continued subsidization of the settlements.

The economic and political costs are astronomical and create a long-term strategic threat to the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett represents a constituency that receives far more taxpayer support than his own neighbors in central Israel. Between 2011 and 2012, the cost of the settlements was, according to Peace Now, around NIS 2 billion, covering costs ranging from transportation to agriculture and housing.

Official channels of the Israeli government encourage the Diaspora to discuss Jewish challenges, including the problems that the country faces with its ultra-Orthodox community. They put settlements, however under the rubric of security, thereby deeming the topic “off limits” in the official Israel-Diaspora discourse. By doing so they restrict the Jewish world from helping in any way with the settlement problem, urging them instead not to ask questions.

By highlighting a populist issue such as the universal draft, the settler community has managed to morph themselves into the Israeli middle-class while demonstrating the clear “otherness” of the ultra-Orthodox population. By turning the ultra-Orthodox into hated figures, the Yesh Atid-Habayit Hayehudi alliance risks backsliding on the positive trends that the ultra-Orthodox community has made in the past few years, and masks the fact that the settlements are just as dependent on the state as those they attack.

Had he started by addressing the cost of the settlements, Lapid could have found more money for Israel’s middle classes, and helped the ultra-Orthodox integrate into society. Instead, he risks alienating a community he is trying to help while “koshering” a group that not only takes, but decimates Israel’s image in the world.

This election has demonstrated to overseas supporters of both the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers that Israel cannot square the circle at a time of fiscal tightening. Targeting the issues posed by the settlements offers us the best chance at dealing with both important public policy challenges successfully rather than through a populist push that will achieve neither.