(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the wake of the housing protest, thousands of parents took part in a “march
of strollers” to protest the high cost of raising a child and demanding more
government involvement. How should we evaluate this demand from a public and
ethical point of view? Two Swedish social scientists, Henrik Berggren and Lars
Trägårdh, recently proposed a useful way of thinking about this question. They
suggest that different cultures orient themselves in different ways around three
poles: individual, family, state.
In the United States, the primary axis
is individual-family. The family is recognized as the proper and legitimate
force in shaping the individual; the relationship to the state is secondary
given the traditional American suspicion of big government.
children, the corollary would be that the state doesn’t interfere in the way
they are raised and doesn’t see itself responsible for raising them. The US sees
raising children as both the prerogative and the responsibility of the family
and on an international scale provides little support.
In Germany, they
propose that the primary axis is family-state, with the individual somewhat
This allows a larger role for government concern for
children, but via the family.
More radically, they propose that in
Scandinavia the main axis is individual- state. The family is less central while
the state takes a direct interest in the individual child. The child is a child
of the state. This would seem to be a good characterization of the kibbutz
ethic; the “children’s house” of the original kibbutzim sought to make all the
kibbutz children children of the kibbutz as much as they were children of this
or that family.
How does Israel orient itself around these axes? I would
view Israel (and many other countries) as having a more equal, perhaps more
balanced relationship than any of these more bipolar models. Certainly in
Israel’s multicultural society the individual-family bond is primary to that of
family-state, but the state is not a passive actor either. Israelis are
comfortable with duties towards the state and are not bashful of demanding that
the state fulfill responsibilities towards them. We could view the Israeli
policy of child allowances as an expression of this; the state helps the child,
but via an unconditional grant to the family.
As I have pointed out
before, Israel is an extremely child-friendly country with a very high
birthrate; even among secular Israelis, the birthrate is far higher than that in
other economically advanced nations. Without relating directly to the validity
of the marchers’ specific demands, from a fundamental point of view the Israeli
model does acknowledge a basic government responsibility to help and empower
individual families to raise their children.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an
independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).