Fundamentally Freund: Welfare for the wealthy

Why is the state subsidizing the arts instead of providing real assistance for people in need?

By
November 30, 2011 22:22
4 minute read.
The new Habimah foyer

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 deprivation.

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.

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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 sustenance.

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 healthy.”

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 be.

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.

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.

In other 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 to it.

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 television.

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 Habima.

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 people.


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