To snitch or not to snitch?

Why is the criminal offense of tax evasion so widely accepted? Should we spill the beans on our neighbors who are working under the table?

An accountant calculator taxes 370 (photo credit: Ivan Alvarado / Reuters)
An accountant calculator taxes 370
(photo credit: Ivan Alvarado / Reuters)
To snitch or not to snitch – that is the question.
Should we spill the beans on our neighbors who are working under the table? Or continue to enjoy the fact that we all love to beat the system? The Israel Tax Authority’s new ad campaign, which calls on the public to call the “justice hotline” and report tax evaders in our community, has provoked a great deal of criticism among Israelis.
Yet along with the criticism, some people are timidly hoping that this campaign succeeds.
For the past week, radio broadcasters, “talk-back” bloggers, Facebook users and journalists have been wrestling with this dilemma; they criticize the government, are angry at tax-evading tycoons, and are mostly just uncomfortable and confused.
Why is the criminal offense of tax evasion so widely accepted? Why hasn’t the “share the tax burden” ad campaign received as much public support as the popular campaign to coerce draft evaders to join their brethren in protecting the State of Israel? In an effort to explain this inconsistent behavior, we can consider Jewish-American sociologist Robert Merton’s idea of “social ambivalence.”
Merton postulates that people say one thing, yet do the complete opposite – not because they are mentally compromised, but because society promotes two conflicting messages.
Sometimes we feel closer to one idea, whereas at other times we feel closer to the complete opposite. The Tax Authority’s ad campaign is highlighting this social ambivalence in that it is asking us to choose between two values that are both central to Israeli society.
On one hand, we are being told that we shouldn’t accept being suckers, that the time has come for everyone to pay taxes. Yet, on the other hand, Israeli solidarity calls on us to love everyone, and to deceive the authorities.
Israelis’ deep fear that they might be the one getting “screwed” is intimately connected with Israeli identity, and is the opposite of the image of the weak Diaspora Jew. The Jews were the gentiles’ suckers for 2,000 years. It’s the combination of chutzpah, national sovereignty and the sabra’s strong muscles fighting against authority and government.
The “never again” attitude we have (in reference to the Shoah) is the source of our resolute refusal to ever be suckers again. In this way, we are showing everyone that they will never succeed in slapping us on the second cheek; that we refuse to pay again and again and again for those who are getting a free ride on our account.
These values are lingering just beneath the surface for many Israelis’ – people who are so grateful that finally the government is doing something about the numerous tax evaders who are working under the table, and whom the tax payers are carrying on their backs.
Just give us the number to call, many Israelis are saying, and we’ll demolish the black market, gray economy, and VAT exemptions. And, if possible, we would also get rid of the corrupt senior officials.
Enough already! We are tired of being suckers.
Everyone needs to pay taxes.
But then as you pick up the phone and dial the Tax Authority’s hotline number, the conflicting value takes hold of you: We are all brothers, we don’t leave wounded soldiers in the field, and, after all, we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
ISRAELI SOCIETY is based on loyalty, family values, as well as the unity of warriors banded together against the TV tax. And, of course, also against paying taxes as required by law! Should we snitch? Why, are we traitors? Are we hypocritical? Or cheaters? Of course not.
We are loyal and we show basic fairness to our friends and brothers.
For that reason, every time we take a taxi we agree not to use the meter, and for home repairs we consent to pay cash. It’s true that we are benefiting from the collusion against the tax authorities when we save a few percentage points here and there. But mainly we are feeling innocent in our true loyalty to our brothers.
And indeed, the concept of social ambivalence formulated by Merton gives us insight into this public debate, and explains the confusion that grips us as we watch the Tax Authority hotline video clips.
Of course we are tired of being suckers. And therefore we agree that everyone needs to share the tax burden. But these same Zionist values cause us to simultaneously oppose the Tax Authority, and to embrace the chummy relationship we have with all workers who want us to pay in cash.
The Tax Authority’s ad campaign cannot free itself from the confusing and conflicting values that make up Israeli society.
The writer is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Translated by Hannah Hochner.