The new Habimah foyer 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Habimah)
The numbers are in, and they don’t look good. In a wide-ranging study released
on Tuesday, the National Insurance Institute pulled the cover off of one of
Israeli society’s darkest secrets: the existence of widespread hunger and
The survey, which was released at the Sderot Conference for
Society, found that a whopping 20 percent of Israelis cannot afford to buy
enough food for themselves and their families.
Thirteen percent of
respondents said they often go without sufficient food, while one out of five of
those questioned had to turn to friends or family for help purchasing
If accurate, the figures signify nothing less than a
pervasive and intolerable crisis.
As the director-general of the Welfare
Ministry, Nahum Itzkovitz, noted, “There is a serious problem with nutritional
insecurity whereby people are forced to go without enough food or without food
completely; in other cases families find food but it is not appropriate or
Indeed, it is simply inconceivable that so many of our fellow
citizens should be going hungry. As heirs to an ancient tradition of charity and
extending a helping hand to others, we must take dramatic steps to address this
issue, which goes to the very heart of what a Jewish society ought to
When looking at the figures, I could not help but think that the
priorities of our government and society are often so wildly misplaced, with
precious resources and taxpayer money going to waste while thousands of Israelis
are compelled to grapple with an empty stomach.
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Take, for example, the
newly refurbished Habima national theater in Tel Aviv.
With its vast new
glass windows and soaring ceilings, the hall reopened last week after being
fixed up to the tune of NIS 105 million, with NIS 57.5m. paid for by the Tel
Aviv municipality and the remainder coming from the government.
words, it was the taxpayer who had to foot the bill.
On top of that,
Habima also received an additional gift when the government agreed to forgive
NIS 18.5m. of the theater’s debt to the state, which dates back to a 1995 loan
that saved it from insolvency.
Now don’t get me wrong. Culture and the
arts are certainly important. But if there aren’t enough people out there who
want what Habima has to offer, then what justification is there for public
funding to keep it going? Why must we collectively continue to pour millions
into Habima’s coffers, and give them a brand new makeover to boot, if their
appeal is so limited that they are incapable of standing on their own two feet?
BELIEVE IT or not, much of what passes for government funding of cultural
activity amounts to little more than welfare for the wealthy. Even with the
subsidies, Habima concerts and performances cost hundreds of shekels per ticket,
meaning tax monies are being used to support the culture habits of those people
who can afford those prices.
Does this make any sense? If the government
decided to subsidize vacations to Europe or luxury automobiles for the wealthy,
there would be howls of outrage, and rightly so. So why should the bankrolling
of musicals be viewed any differently? Government funding of the arts not only
makes little economic or even common sense, but there is also a danger attached
It heightens the risk that public culture will become politicized
by creating dependency and a sense of obligation toward those who sign the
checks. Furthermore, when government is the one paying the bill, it inevitably
erodes the sense of personal responsibility that every citizen should feel
towards the public good.
After all, when people read that Habima is the
recipient of extensive government largesse, they are far less likely to feel the
need to contribute of their own accord. Now I know what some of you might be
thinking: most people do not place enough value on things such as opera, ballet
or even a show. They would much rather stare at their iPods or watch
But heck, isn’t that what living in a free society is all
about? The majority of people have voted with their feet, or in this case with
their behinds, and chosen to sit on the couch at home rather than go to
So why must we compel them, through their taxes, to pay for those
who do want a night out at the theater? Here’s a radical idea: let’s stop
pumping money down black holes like Habima and instead distribute those funds to
various private organizations that feed the poor.
Let the artists and
playwrights and opera singers compete for public attention and income just like
everyone else. If the state is going to be laying out tens of millions of
shekels for welfare, then at least let it go to those who truly need
it.The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which
assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish
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