In Israel’s Haredi community there is a marvelous organization, funded by philanthropy, called Refuah Vechayim. It is staffed partly by volunteers and partly by professionals. It organizes weekends in hotels or schools or other rented premises for large groups of disabled children, boys and girls, not all of them Haredi. They pray the Shabbat services in shul, eat their meals together, sing and dance (those who can) and otherwise have a good time.
The leaders of Refuah Vechayim explain, without inhibition, that while they strive to make these weekends as enjoyable and meaningful as possible for the children, their “priority clients” are the children’s parents, who get a weekend of rest from the 24/7 task of bringing up a son or daughter with disabilities. However much the child is loved and cherished, by the time Friday comes around the parents can all desperately do with this weekend respite.
The principle of weekend respite after a week of heavy strain is fully recognized by this sector of society as it is, no doubt, by many others. Now the question, unscientific but thought-provoking nevertheless, needs to be asked: Is being prime minister of Israel as heavy a strain as looking after a disabled child? Assuming it is extremely heavy (there is no true way of comparison between the two burdens), then should not the state ensure that the prime minister has weekend respite?
In the United States and Great Britain this is not a question. The state provides its top leader with a country retreat (Camp David and Chequers respectively) designed and equipped to afford him, his family and aides a spell of bucolic relaxation between two tough weeks of governing. Why doesn’t Israel do the same? What could be a more worthwhile outlay for the taxpayer? If it turned out that a prime minister had his own vacation home which he preferred to the official one, then the state would cover his expenses up to the ceiling of what it would pay to maintain an official retreat for him.
The reason why this natural, not even expensive, step of unchallengeable intelligence is not taken in Israel is the misguided neo-McCarthyite atmosphere of distrust that has surrounded prime ministers’ budgets and expenditures for years. The Netanyahus, it must be said at once, are directly responsible for thickening this atmosphere with their ostentatious lifestyle, in office and out, which seems so inexplicably insensitive given the difficult economic situation of so many Israelis.
But it equally needs to be remembered that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the start of his present term in 2009, ostensibly bowed to this zeitgeist by self-righteously suspending plans that his predecessor Ehud Olmert had launched for a new prime minister’s residence, to be built near the Prime Minister’s Office (in the area near the entrance to the capital that the Public Works Authority has seen fit to designate on a prominent traffic sign as the “Ben-Guryon Qtr” - and to hell with how Israel’s founding father chose to spell his name).
Netanyahu’s people explained that the building plan was too opulent for Israel’s leader. Netanyahu was depicted as the willing victim of his own cost-conscious restraint. In fact, of course, the real victims were, and still are, the people who live near the prime minister’s residence in the Jerusalem district of Rehavia, whose days, and worse still nights, are torn apart by slamming doors, flashing red “Kojak” lights and sometimes still-wailing sirens.
Netanyahu’s disingenuous pose was the consequence of legitimate press disclosures of the first family’s unconscionable acceptance, when out of office, of weekend stays abroad laid on by individuals. But it was also the consequence of the atmosphere of populist suspicion surrounding him in the press – and surrounding senior law-enforcement officials who did not find his unethical behavior criminal. Since then, his capacity for eating passion fruit ice cream and his proclivity for taking many showers have undergone profound press investigation.
In this atmosphere it is hard to envisage serious and dispassionate consideration of the prime minister’s – any prime minister’s – need for weekend respite and the state’s fundamental duty to provide it. The Knesset’s duty is to rise above ad hominem politics and take up a matter of state that should not brook delay.
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