Is Israel's government deliberately trying to push Diaspora Jews away from a tangible commitment to the Jewish state? That seems to be the message behind the Knesset Finance Committee's recent approval of regulations to double the municipal property tax (arnona) on so-called 'ghost apartments.' The regulations are designed to punish owners of residences unoccupied for at least nine months a year, whether consecutively or cumulatively.
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While ostensibly meant as a misguided or populist way of solving a housing shortage in some of the urban centers of the country, this law in fact is primarily a plan that will discourage the most common purchasers of such apartments - Diaspora Jews - making these regulations a short-sighted and ultimately bad idea.
These are Diaspora Jews who feel a powerful enough attachment to Israel to buy an apartment in the Jewish homeland. They do so either in the hopes that they will one day move there full-time or that owning a place there will allow or even encourage them to spend more time in Israel. Is this a bad thing? The law being discussed in the Knesset punishes or at least discourages such an act. Doesn't Israel want a Jewish Diaspora that feels committed and attached to Israel, a world Jewry that feels as if they are part of it, and is ready to share its destiny even if they cannot live there all the time? Some countries would pay a premium to have such a committed, foreign-based population making such an investment.
Moreover, why does this government want to penalize these second home owners by forcing them to pay double-rate municipal taxes, when, by virtue of their frequent absences, they are not using the city services that those taxes support? Currently, second-home Diaspora Jews who pay municipal taxes at the regular rate but don't use many local services are in fact subsidizing their full-time resident neighbors. They do not clog the streets with their cars, use precious water excessively, or control neighborhood associations. They do of course pump money into the local economy in order to furnish and care for their apartments. Who wouldn't want that kind of economic subsidy? Apparently, the supporters of this law, Interior Minster Gideon Sa'ar and Finance Minster Yair Lapid prominent among them.
Why are these lawmakers financially penalizing those 'silent' Diaspora neighbors who follow the decisions made by the winners of municipal and local elections, despite their lack of a vote?
For a country that needs all the friends it can get, at a time when the Jewish Diaspora is increasingly alienated from Israel (as a recent Pew survey demonstrated), a strategy punishes those who have invested in their close attachment to Israel with double taxes (or as some commentators suggest even triple or quadruple taxes), irrespective of income - seems wrongheaded.
If the goal is to persuade second home owners to rent their apartments, this is in no way a guaranteed end-result. Owners-turned-landlords may well charge rent at a higher rate than those in most need of affordable housing can pay, bearing in mind the facts that most second homes are located in high rent areas. Owners may also prefer not to rent out at all in order to protect their homes from wear and tear.
Diaspora Jews are of course not the only owners of such apartments. There are Israelis who have gone abroad for some limited period, leaving their homes empty, and there are resident Israelis who buy a place for their children in the hopes they will inhabit it at some later time. Are these owners to be penalized as well?
The effect of these regulations are to penalize Diaspora Jewry to satisfy domestic populism, especially as Israelis often see the Diaspora at best as a resource to be exploited, and at worst - politically insignificant, if not at least quiescent.
There are surely better solutions for solving the housing shortage. Just look at the 'success' this government and others that preceded it have had in growing the number of residential units beyond the Green Line. When they want to, Israeli governments know just how to subsidize and encourage the construction of affordable housing.
Perhaps if they tried doing the same in places like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other municipal centers inside the Green Line, they would not have to use an approach that is punitive and divisive, but rather one whose unintended consequences may be more far-reaching than the problems they intended to solve.
Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.