Netanyahu's New Hero

Netanyahu, it turns out, wants to renew the "religion of work." If he had the courage, he'd commission a large mural, the kind that used to decorate the Kremlin, in which muscular heroes are depicted wielding sickles and women are shown at work on the production line.

The finance minister's new hero is the workingman. The workingman is the opposite of the parasite. The workingman doesn't have a "gimme" culture. He takes care of himself and is no burden to the state. Therefore, the workingman is the man of the hour. Netanyahu, it turns out, wants to renew the "religion of work." If he had the courage, he'd commission a large mural, the kind that used to decorate the Kremlin, in which muscular heroes are depicted wielding sickles and women are shown at work on the production line.

Seemingly, there's nothing wrong with all this. Work is indeed a value, and without it, no society can function and grow. Netanyahu, therefore, is perceived by many as someone who is restoring a former glory - the value of work in Israeli society.

The problem is that in the current government, glorifying work is a slogan and not a policy. It is another way to harm the weak by stigmatizing as parasites anyone who cannot provide a livelihood for themselves from the fruit of their labor, and legitimizing the process in which more is given to those who have more.

Like John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher, Netanyahu is convinced the poor are guilty of being poor and the rich won their wealth rightfully. Therefore, the poor should be punished and the rich rewarded. When a generation later, it turns out the poor are poorer and the rich are richer, Netanyahu and his ilk can claim it's proof of their original argument about the inabilities and laziness of the poor and the talents and diligence of the rich.

Creating such a close connection between wealth and personal characteristics has always been the weapon of social Darwinism. If the social rule is survival of the fittest, then presumably anyone who survives is the fittest. Social concepts have always wanted to regard success as reward for worthy efforts. The philosophy of morality, as well as the various religions, found it difficult to distinguish between the two, as the familiar line from the grace after a meal says, "I never saw a just man abandoned and his seed seeking bread."

Really? People who believe can claim that justice abandoned in this world is gathered into the bosom of the Lord in the next; but, they can't ignore the fact that many good people reach their last crust of bread in this world. The need to explain how good and honest people fail and suffer from poverty, a difficult challenge to any doctrine of morality.

The moral embarrassment raised by the question and the populism of free market economics now combine into a simplistic formula that frees society, and the state behind it, from responsibility for those who need help, and lays the blame on the needy. Thus poverty, unemployment and economic distress are turned into shame.

According to Benjamin Netanyahu's worldview, the poor must be punished and shamed. One way to do this is to send them to look for work when there is no work, and to turn the job hunt into a ritual of humiliation. Put them in line, let them wait and then make clear to them they've been done a favor. To let them know just how much society despises them, the job seekers are sent to offices called employment bureaus, but in effect are signing bureaus. Some 190,000 men and women are sent every year to these bureaus and only 6,000 of them (less than 3 percent) actually find work there.

After the economic program kicks in, another 42,000 will join them, but since there won't be any new jobs, the placement rates will drop to 2 percent. Some 200,000 will continue crowding into lines and waiting to sign without getting work. So, why should they even go to the bureau, some every month, some every week? Why not let the person sign up once and have them notify the bureau if they find work? Why is it okay to file an income tax report once a year? The answer is simple: According to the prevailing economic theory in Israel, it's in the nature of the poor to cheat the state and exploit it, and therefore they have to be supervised.

Of course things could be done differently. The employees of the employment service bureaus could actually be required to leave their offices and find jobs to which to send those who sign up as unemployed. The needs of the employers could be coordinated with potential employees. It is possible to operate as a service provider instead of an agent of punishment. This is how a state behaves when it regards the right to work as something that should be granted to all, according to the needs of the economy and the ability and needs of the individual. But in Israel 2003, reprimanding the unemployed for not finding work is the main thing. That's why the lines at the employment bureaus will grow. Exhausted citizens will be received by exhausted clerks, made to sign unnecessary forms and then sent home - until they are called in again to be reminded what a burden they are. This is not a policy to get people back to work or appreciation for the workingman. This is a policy of contempt for the needy and therefore it must end.