Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Charity begins at home, that is if you have one

Last week, amidst a popular protest march in Tel Aviv for social justice and a lower cost of living, Moshe Silman set himself alight. Silman had been driven to the extreme, after seeing his livelihood, his trucking business, his home, destroyed and wiped out by, initially, an unpaid debt of just NIS 15,000 to National Insurance. The Bailiff’s Office, in pursuing the money owed by Silman, confiscated his driving license, hence robbing him of his job as a taxi driver, and Silman, a 57-year old from Haifa, was not entitled to public housing since he had once owned property himself. The rules are that, if you once owned your own home, no matter how small the property, and no matter what the circumstances were that led you to sell it, you are not entitled to public housing.
Not that it would have helped. How many public housing units have been built in Israel since 1998?
You love these guessing games, don’t you?
Well, this is a tricky one, so I’ll give you some background info, or else you won’t have the foggiest.
There are about 7 million people in Israel, and just over 5 million old enough to vote (or buy their own home). To buy a 5-roomed flat in Israel, the average Israeli would have to work 191 months, twice the OECD average.
The average monthly salary is NIS 8,800 and according to a recent survey, the cost of living in Israel is among the highest of OECD countries.
So now that you’re getting the picture of how expensive it can be living here, I‘ll ask again: How many homes were built by the State of Israel for public housing in the 14 years since 1998?

Photo: Wisconsin Association of Housing Authorities

The answer: None.

That’s right, none. Apparently, our politicians have been too busy with other things.
Here’s an example of the other pressing matters that fill up their diaries.
This month the esteemed members of Knesset passed an extremely important law, that may possibly affect more lives than we know.
I am talking of course of the “Popcorn Law 2012”. Apparently our lawmakers were incensed that when you go and see a film in the cinema, you are forced to buy popcorn, fizzy drinks etc, at extortionate prices. Usually the establishment won’t let you bring in your own food or drink. This... what’s the word I’m looking for... this injustice had to be corrected. So the politicians of Israel passed the law which should come into effect next year.
If only Moshe Silman had been protesting about the insanity of not being able to bring his own sandwiches when watching a film at his local cinema, then maybe his one small voice would have been heard by someone in our Knesset.
I apologise if this sounds glib, but it is the ridiculousness of the situation that makes me so. It is clearly absurd that when one man, through personal, and not all that rare circumstances, cannot find work or a home, is incensed enough to set himself on fire, then one has to wonder if our popcorn-munching politicians, have got their priorities, or rather our priorities, right.

Public housing is a form of charity, by the state, on our behalf. No matter how big-hearted, or generous we may be, only a government can provide public housing for those in need.

Now according to Rambam, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, scholar, doctor and codifier of Jewish law, charity is not an option. It is a duty, and the highest form of charity is to help someone in such a manner that he no longer requires charity. In other words, instead of giving a poor man fish and chips, one should give him a fishing rod, and let him earn a living.
(Rambam by the way was not his real name. It was Moses ben Maimon, which led us to the old adage, “From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses,” a stunning one-liner, thought up by one of the scriptwriters from Eastenders probably, but obviously referring to the stature of Moses who led the people out of Egypt, and Moses who codified the laws. But not Moses Silman, who set himself alight).

Now once upon a time, a charitable man, somewhere in Israel, was asked to pop round to visit a woman who lived in dire circumstances. So he went. And indeed, the woman was living very much on the edge. Her phone had been cut off, and she had no money to pay even the electricity bill. The visitor was visibly moved. He rallied his friends round, and before you could say “No thanks I’ve brought my own popcorn”, he had rustled up enough shekels among them to pay the woman’s debts, and set her on the right path.

Pause for effect.

A while later this good man returned to see how she was getting on. She was still in her poky hovel, still with no electricity, and still with no phone. How could this be? There was no question of gambling, or fraud. It was simply that the woman had no idea how to handle her money, and had found herself back in financial straits within no time.

At first this charitable man was annoyed. But then he thought again, and realized that what she needed was not financial assistance, but help in understanding how to manage her money. Eventually this fellow set up a charity called Paamonim, and its volunteers follow Rambam’s philosophy, helping those in difficulties, not by handing them money, but by showing them how to dig themselves out of their own hole, to the effect that they should never find themselves in that trouble again.

Enjoy the film.  

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