Nehemia Shtrasler recently wrote in this newspaper that Israelis loathe the rich and brand them with the pejorative term "tycoons," hoping to humiliate them. He reached this erroneous conclusion in the aftermath of the Ofer Brothers company's entanglement with Iran and the death of Sammy Ofer.
Shtrasler's description is as far from truth and reality as the country's top economic tier is removed from minimum wage. Sammy Ofer's death brought this fact into sharper focus. The company's activity in Iran caused serious damage to Israel's security, to its foreign policy and international standing. Any other Israeli citizen who owned companies suspected of breaking the law would have been under investigation long ago.
Israel worships the rich. They are cultural heroes. Any item released by their publicists wins media attention without any critical filtering. They have unlimited access to political decision makers. They receive tax breaks. Government officials and members of the security establishment court them, banking on the hope that when the day comes to leave public service they will have a soft landing, straight into the cushioned executive armchairs of the state's richest citizens.
The criticism that is occasionally leveled against them is the result of their own actions. It seems that there is no limit to their lust for wealth, even as they ignore the insufferably yawning gap between their income status and the rest of the country's. A few years ago, Shari Arison and Bank Hapoalim did not hesitate to dismiss 900 dedicated workers, even though the bank's profits continued to grow. When, like the Ofer Brothers, they are asked to pay increased dividends to the state in exchange for concessions for refineries or Dead Sea Works - or, in the case of Yitzhak Tshuva, natural gas drilling concession rights - they wage a furious war against the state as though it were a cruel enemy.
When their private companies go bankrupt, like in the case of Nochi Dankner, they refuse - using some financial maneuvering - to pay out of their own pockets for outstanding debts, and they dump those debts in the public's lap. In a period of economic crisis, when the value of their stocks and bonds plummets, they try to wriggle out of their responsibility, asking the government to bail them out by paying their debts to the investor public, as Lev Leviev and Benny Steinmetz tried to do.
There is a growing feeling that some of the rich are heedlessly conducting an invisible and ostentatious competition among themselves to see who can accumulate and display the most wealth and power. Consider, for instance, the Tshuva family's ostentatious wedding, which displayed rank disdain for accepted procedures. Every year, the number of dollar-billionaires has grown in Israel. Concurrently, with the backing of the Finance Ministry and the cruel, ugly, capitalist ways of our economy, the socioeconomic gap in Israel has grown in a fashion that propels us toward the third world. In the United States, the capitalist nerve-center, increasing numbers of rich people realize that they need to use their capital for social purposes. That, they grasp, is a moral obligation which they owe to their homeland and to the state where they accumulated their wealth. Capitalist magnates such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates step up in the United States and bequeath significant portions of their profits to the state. Wealthy people in Israel, who view America's tycoons as role models, trail far behind these U.S. counterparts. Israel is one of the developed countries in the world where wealthy people are known for their frugality; and where their contribution to the society and community, in proportion to their wealth, ranks among the most meager in the world. Without getting into a discussion of whether privatization is a blessing or a curse - and I believe it is the latter - Israel's tycoons have rightly earned the hostility or criticism directed at them.
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