Charity Doesn't Solve Economic Distress

The new Israeli giving, which has become a well-oiled industry, with budgets, manpower and public relations, enables the state to escape its basic obligations to the citizen.

A sixth-grade student at a school in the center of Tel Aviv, arrived home before Pesach with a list in his hand. We have to buy rice and sugar for the children in Dimona, A. explained to his mother. His mother took the list, purchased the items on it, and sent them to the school with her son the next day. The teacher collected the rice, sugar, tea and candies, packed them nicely, praised the children for their generosity, and sent the package to the school in Dimona.

Who are "the children in Dimona?" The children and parents in Tel Aviv do not know these anonymous students in the school in Dimona. Who decided they need rice and sugar? The enthusiastic teacher, who read in the newspaper that they are needy and suffering from nutritional problems.

What is the link between the school in Tel Aviv and the school in Dimona? No link, except for the charity, which is being conducted over the heads of the students in the Tel Aviv school by their parents (who do the buying) and the teacher (who does the sending) and the parents of the children in Dimona (who receive the goods).

This link is similar to that which exists between anyone who donated 200 shekels at the supermarket, or sent a check to a nonprofit organization that advertises on television with the help of one of the Channel Two franchisees, and the needy, anonymous people who receive the donation. The person making the donation feels their conscience has been cleansed in the face of the gap between rich and poor, which is particularly irksome on the eve of the holiday. And the members of the nonprofit group feel they are contributing to society, to the community, and especially to the unemployed and to those whom fate has dealt with unfavorably, in light of the economic distress they read about every day in the papers.

On the face of it, an excellent and moral arrangement, in the spirit of giving anonymously that is part of Jewish tradition. Actually, the wave of charity sweeping Israeli society in recent years is destructive and corrupts both the giver and the receiver. This wave does not solve the problem of economic distress. On the contrary: Like a painkiller, it dulls this distress for a period of time, erases any memory of the causes and allows them to continue to operate with greater force.

When the effect wears off, the person in distress no longer has the strength or the will to do something in order to understand the source of the problem and to find a real solution. He is already too dependent, too weak and too humiliated, and will only consume more and more doses of compassion.

This activity imitates the one-time Diaspora-like charity. Except that form of giving reinforced an organized social structure, not in any glorious way that maintained the corrupt wealth alongside the parasitism and poverty, in a community that cultivated a cloistered life cut off from the state and the surrounding society.

By contrast, the new Israeli giving, which has become a well-oiled industry, with budgets, manpower and public relations, enables the state to escape its basic obligations to the citizen.

Because, instead of waging an overtly political battle, over a long school day and meals in all educational institutions - which A.'s parents and his friends will pay for and those who can't afford them, in Dimona or Tel Aviv, will be afforded on the basis of graded subsidies - and over equal health and welfare services and programs for helping the unemployed reenter the job market, too many Israelis prefer to shake off thoughts of economic distress and its causes at the cost of a few hundred shekels in charitable donations.

In a few years time, when A. goes into the army, his commander, a youngster his age from Dimona, will vent his anger, alienation and frustration by giving him the runaround. A. will not comprehend how short the distance is between Tel Aviv and Dimona and who this youngster is, who is so similar to him and speaks exactly the same language, and will wonder - like the American who his entire life donated to the virtual starving child in far-off Africa - why this poor, miserable person who hails from the backward desert, hates him so much. After all, he will think, he is only alive because of the rice and sugar sent to him by mother and the benevolent teacher.