tzedakah box 88.
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A number of recent columns have focused on poverty in Israel. A short summary of my position: Israel has a poverty problem which is worse in many ways than that of many comparably developed nations. However, we need also to remember that Israel's standards are those of a developed country; we have very little poverty by Third-World or even developing-world standards. Very few Israelis lack basic nutrition or shelter.
I emphasize this fact, not to belittle the problems that do exist, but because there is a widespread tendency for Israelis to view this country as some kind of banana republic. Israel has a poverty problem, true, but it is a distinctly developed-world kind of poverty. Israel has a corruption problem, but it is a distinctly developed-world kind of corruption - not comparable to the breakdown of fundamental norms found in developing countries.
Israel is a developed country, and needs to adopt the perspective and responsibilities of a developed country.
I ENTITLED an earlier column (May 27) "Schnorrer state" to highlight the tendency of the Israeli government to transfer a little too much responsibility to the private sector. In my opinion, there is a far worse problem: the fact that Israel's government is schnorring not only from Israelis but also from foreign governments, principally that of the US.
The simple fact is that most countries with a level of development comparable to ours are aid donors. According to the OECD, Greece, Spain, New Zealand and Italy - all, like Israel, well ensconced in the developing world but somewhere in the lower tiers of that world - provide net foreign aid in the range of .15-.25 percent of national income. If Israel were giving a similar amount, our foreign aid would reach about $200 million a year, or about $30 per Israeli.
Instead, Israel's foreign aid is -$360 million, or about -$60 per Israeli. To our credit, that amount is declining from year to year, and the per capita sum is falling dramatically, but if $60 in aid is less than the hundreds of dollars we were receiving years ago, it still leaves us in the red, ethically speaking.
Why should beleaguered Israelis give away our hard-earned shekels to foreigners? For the same reasons other countries do - a bit of generosity combined with a lot of enlightened self-interest. Foreign aid is a valuable tool of bilateral foreign policy, securing good diplomatic and economic relationships. It is also a valuable tool in overall international relations, moving Israel into the exclusive club of donor nations. There is also nothing wrong with old-fashioned altruism.
I hope that the amount of aid we receive will continue to decline, and that in a few years the negative numbers will turn into positive ones, as Israel takes its rightful place among the responsible and outward-looking nations.
Jewish tradition teaches that it is our responsibility to give to other nations in order to foster "the ways of peace." At our current level of development, I'm convinced that the benefits of moderate and focused foreign aid outweigh the costs.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute located in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.