Extravagant Extravaganza

As Israel's 60th Independence Day approaches, the government is gearing up for a slew of celebrations for the May 8th anniversary. Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham-Balila, a member of the Kadima Party, has been granted a budget of 98 million shekels ($28 million) to make this year's Independence Day special. An increasing number of Israelis, however, are wondering whether throwing extravagant parties is the right thing to do with the money. "We're not saying there shouldn't be Independence Day celebrations," says Dr. Ron Avni, Comptroller of Ben-Gurion University and co-author of a petition calling for an end to "lavish, careless spending on Independence Day celebrations… which can be better directed towards important, just and valuable purposes in welfare, health, education and culture." "We have Independence Day every year, and there certainly is a purpose to the annual ceremonies and public expressions of celebration. But just because it is the 60th doesn't mean that more money should be spent than in an average year, especially when there are so many worthy causes screaming out for support," Avni tells The Report. "If we've found an extra 98 million for Independence Day, let's spend it on something that will make a sustainable difference, instead of on a one-off event we'll have forgotten by the following day." Since Avni formally presented his petition to the Prime Minister's Office and to Avraham-Balila's office in late February, it has continued to gain signatures through the Internet and even spawned a Facebook group. Close to 100,000 people have signed the petition. Public opinion polls also indicate a majority of Israelis support a more modest celebration, with some of the money saved used for pressing social needs. "We're not claiming we can replace the government or Knesset in determining exactly where the money ought to be spent," says Avni. "But there is no shortage of sustainable projects worthy of support, and all we are asking is that they be considered. Poor towns are neglected. Holocaust survivors are living below the poverty line. There are people who can't afford to pay for medicines that aren't covered by the Health Ministry budget. Consider what a statement that would be to make an effort to help them on Independence Day. "Or what about the people in Sderot whose homes have been bombarded by rockets? They have to go through a humiliating fight with the authorities for every penny that they are entitled to in reconstruction because the state hasn't done enough to protect them. But instead of going to a worthy cause, the money in the extra budget for the 60th year celebrations will end up in the pockets of contractors for setting up stages and planning mega-parties." Avraham-Balila formally presented the list of Independence Day events organized by her office on April 6. The list includes several already 'ongoing' projects such as a trans-Israel bicycle trail, a footpath round the Sea of Galilee, and national monument rehabilitation efforts - alongside concerts, aerial shows and a national laser-light production. Ilan Marciano, spokesman for Avraham-Balila, says that special emphasis will be placed on projects "for children," including projects in which children will take part in national monument rehabilitation, taken on heritage-enriching trips to Jerusalem and be granted two months of free entry to nature reserves. Marciano acknowledges that this year's Independence Day celebrations budget is greater than that of an average year, but notes that it is much lower than the amount spent ten years ago, 250 million shekels, for Israel's 50th anniversary celebrations. Avni says that the events list is a partial vindication of his petition efforts. "I know for a fact that several high-cost one-off parties and events were canceled, due to the negative publicity they would incur," he claims. "But the government's efforts here are still unsatisfactory - I estimate that out of the 98 million shekels, perhaps only 15 million will go to sustainable projects. And a careful check indicates that many of those projects will only be given initial funding out of the Independence Day budget, with the rest to be covered by donations from abroad. There is still too much being spent on extravagances at a time when a long list of neglected social issues are crying to heaven for assistance."