Shavuot and unity

At a time when deep fiscal cuts are essential to avert an economic meltdown, it is imperative the government remember Shavuot’s message of unity.

Lapid looking sullen 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Lapid looking sullen 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
As thousands reignite the socioeconomic demonstrations of two summers ago and take to the streets to protest budget cuts proposed by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, it would be worthwhile recalling Shavuot’s strong message of unity. The rabbis teach that it was a temporary and uncharacteristic moment of Jewish unity that facilitated the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, an event commemorated by the holiday.
The book of Exodus (19:2) states that in the days preceding the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people camped in the wilderness in front of Mount Sinai. In Exodus, however, the singular form of the verb “to camp” is used, even though millions of Jews were doing the camping. At that time, explained the rabbis, the Jewish people were united “as one person, with one heart.”
It was this unique state of unity that paved the way for the receiving of the Torah.
Unfortunately, for most of biblical history the Jews were far from united. They bickered among themselves before the Exodus and during it. They bickered among themselves during their wanderings in the desert and when they entered the Land of Israel. The short periods of unity under King David and King Solomon were shattered by the internecine battles that led to the split between Israel and Judah and eventually to destruction and exile.
With the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel after nearly two millennia of exile, we have not stopped bickering; that argumentative, authority-questioning aspect of Jewish and Israeli culture is part of what makes us such a dynamic and innovative people.
But sometimes this confrontational culture can go too far. There is a real danger that the government could soon face widespread, spontaneous demonstrations protesting the budget cuts recently proposed, unless a more balanced economic plan is presented that shares the burden among the rich, the middle class and the poor and fosters unity.
The lower and middle classes are rightly angry over the 2013-2014 state budget. Cuts to child allotments, a rise in VAT, a hike in the payments parents make to public schools, a new health tax for housewives, cuts in free dental care for children and more will hit those at the lower income levels disproportionately hard.
These cuts are particularly unnerving coming from Lapid, who promised a new approach to politics and vowed to protect the rights of the middle class – and who has been chosen as The Jerusalem Post’s most influential Jew of the year in our annual list appearing in today’s Shavuot supplement.
Exacerbating an already volatile situation is the fact that Lapid, in a blatant backtrack from his Yesh Atid party’s political platform, has decided not to fight the Histadrut labor federation. Out of reluctance on Lapid’s part to confront the powerful unions, the finance minister refrained from taxing training funds (kranot histalmut), a type of pension fund enjoyed by public sector workers, that could have brought in billions of shekels in tax revenue, but which was strongly opposed by the Histadrut. Longshoremen, Israel Electric Corporation employees and other powerful public sector groups will continue to enjoy extravagantly high salaries and will not be forced to undergo much needed reforms. No changes will be made in the public sector’s collective labor agreements or in the management culture that makes it nearly impossible to fire unproductive workers.
Also, Lapid did nothing to rectify our distorted corporate tax system. Just last week, the Finance Ministry released a report based on 2010 data showing that Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Intel Israel, Israel Chemicals and Check Point paid an effective tax rate of just 3.3 percent while smaller businesses paid a corporate tax of between 13% and 20%. These four companies received a whopping 70% of the NIS 5.6 billion in tax exemptions under the Encouragement of Capital Investments Law.
For the sake of unity, and to preempt massive grassroots demonstrations that could endanger his and his party’s political future as well as the stability of the government, Lapid must take additional steps to make it clear to the lower and middle classes that they are not the only ones paying the price for previous spendthrift governments.
At a time when deep fiscal cuts are essential to avert an economic meltdown, it is imperative the government remember Shavuot’s message of unity. The lower and middle classes will find it impossible to swallow the bitter pill of sacrifices and belt-tightening measures unless they feel they are part of a unified effort shared by all – including the Histadrut and big business – “as one person, with one heart.”