Pay it forward, even without the NIS 750 subsidy

A man puts money into a charity box, in the streets of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90)
On Friday, the tabloid Yediot Aharonot ran one of the most beautiful items I ever read in a newspaper. Page one mocked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to give Israeli adults NIS 750 or more to stimulate the economy. “Three million will get a subsidy for no reason,” the headline proclaimed. But then, declaring “Pay it forward,” half of page two detailed 26 different organizations where that subsidy check would be used well.
The Cabinet – led by Blue-and-White – may have saved our alleged briber-in-chief from bribing the people. A ministerial committee will now recommend how to allocate the stimulus. Blue-and-White’s demand – “more must be given to those who have less” – prevailed.
This political misfire teaches three moral lessons. First, Israel’s civil society – the nonprofit world beyond family, market and government – is world-class. According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, Israel’s nonprofit sector consumes 7.1% of GDP, making it “one of the world’s largest,” topping the United States, every European country, Australia and even lovely New Zealand.
Yediot’s list illustrates just how many Israeli do-gooders do-good, advancing social welfare, pluralism, culture, education and health. Aviv helps Holocaust survivors. Etgarim boosts people with special needs. Olim BeYachad supports Ethiopian immigrants. Pitchon Lev feeds the under-nourished. Ruach Nashit protects abused women. It’s extraordinary how many Israelis donate time, money and soul to help others in normal times, let alone corona-times.
Second, it’s hard to choose. I don’t know how foundations do it. The needs are overwhelming; each organization so compelling. Thanks to Bibi, many of us tasted those kinds of dilemmas. Note, while a few said, “I won’t take it, it’s the government’s,” most of us quickly treated it as “ours.”
So last Shabbat, one question kept popping up: “What are you going to do with your 750 shekels?” – which usually meant, “To whom shall I give my 750 shekels?”
One big divide emerged. Some planned to give personal charity – to a struggling neighbor, a battered woman, a COVID-cursed shopkeeper. They often debated how to do it. Do you slip cash under the door so as not to embarrass the person or give it personally to encourage them too?
Others wanted to support an organization philanthropically – the rape crisis center, the local food bank, the youth-at-risk club. Here the debate, beyond “who gets it?” was, “Do I split my gift or get more bang for my buck by propping up one cause?”
As with every meaningful endeavor, different theories about how best to help abound. One Jerusalem rabbi is very charitable – but only through organizations. The beggars who pester him during his daily prayers offend him. “As a Zionist,” he says, “it reminds me of our powerlessness in exile, when we had to give the needy handouts. Today, our state expresses our values – and does the job best.”
THAT APPROACH contrasts with my observation that Israelis give more personal charity – to friends and family – while more Diaspora Jews give to more formal philanthropic organizations. Israel’s a more intimate, more family-oriented society, while Diaspora communities have a deeper giving culture of bankrolling all kinds of Jewish institutions.
In Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism (2006), Arthur Brooks’s surprising data demonstrated that conservatives usually give more charity than liberals. Liberals trust government to redistribute income. Conservatives give to express religious and family values.
Then there are the Jews.
Jewish liberals give and Jewish conservatives give. Some Jews are fulfilling religious commandments. Others are expressing peoplehood and solidarity. So many of us grow up watching our parents give, that we take it for granted. My parents were once audited. The IRS agent started aggressively – then ominously invited some colleagues to join. Breaking into a broad smile, he said, “They’re for real – look how little these people earn and how much they give away.”
Beyond those basic giving questions, we also debated how to ensure that all three million lucky ones helped. Clearly, when it comes to redirecting government subsidies from those who don’t need it to those who do, Maimonidean anonymity doesn’t help. You have to shout it loud and proud, to encourage others to join. We wondered how a social media campaign could encourage participation. The hashtag would be revealing: “#I gave” implies it was yours to give, “#I paid it forward” is suitably ambiguous.
I wondered whether we could encourage everyone to add NIS 18 – or 180 or 1,800, etc. – whatever their ability, to make this a true public-private partnership.
As the debate raged, part of me started wanting Bibi to defy the economists and common sense and distribute the mass bribe, launching all these delicious dilemmas. But there’s a better way.
The government should be wise, disciplined and responsible, only subsidizing the needy. But we, the lucky “haves,” must give much more to the “have-nots” and the “once-hads.” Let the ‘Great Undistributed 750 Shekels’ be a spur, reminding us how deep the needs are, how necessary it is to step up, and how satisfying it is to help others, especially during a crisis.
When I lived in Montreal, the first time I attended an event celebrating someone’s big donation, everyone kept wishing him and his family “Mazal Tov.”
“That’s strange,” I thought. “They’re a million dollars poorer.” But of course, the donation, like all acts of tzedaka – righteousness – deserved congratulations.
May we all get “mazal toved” – a lot! – for giving more and more.
The writer, recently designated one of Algemeiner’s top 100 people ‘positively influencing Jewish life,’ is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society, and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award finalist. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of 10 books on American history, his next book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, will be published in September.

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