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.  

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Not just for the sake of the trees

In the 111 years since its founding in 1901, how many trees has the Jewish National Fund planted in Israel?
Good question, wouldn't you agree?
Well I’ll let you ponder that one while I tell a tale or two of trees.

Once upon a time, I was a site engineer, or a resident engineer. This means I was the one responsible for overseeing a large construction project, I was the client’s eyes and ears on site.

Our project was the construction of a sewage tunnel, and the laying of over 10 kilometers of sewage pipe both through the tunnel and then beyond, across a conservation area on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, and even beneath a river (which was either dried up for part of the year, or flowing with actual sewage the rest of the time).

One of the first excursions we took to this area, before any digging, drilling, pipe laying had begun, consisted of almost a dozen of us: managers (well it was a Jewish group, you see), engineers, “greens” from the JNF and Ministry of the Environment, landscape architects. We walked the length of the proposed route of the pipe, and noted in meticulous detail, where the construction site would be and how far it could encroach on the pastoral environment. In particular we analysed each and every tree that stood in the way of our construction, and decided upon its fate: If it could be left, unharmed, and the construction would just carry on around it; or if should be removed, temporarily, and then brought back after the whole job was finished; if it should be removed to somewhere else nearby and then left there; or, with no other choice, the tree would have to go (but be replaced later with something green and flowery maybe).

It was my first year of living in Israel and I was impressed by the attention given to, and the care meted out to, trees. Here we were, several senior, busy people, investing time and a great deal of care and effort, all for the sake of some trees. Being one of the most reliable people in the team at the time (or maybe, I was the only one with a pen), it fell on me to take the notes, writing such thrilling prose, such as: “Large conifer, south of rubble wall, at point 50, to be removed temporarily”. Of course, this was in fluent Hebrew, though at the time I probably didn’t know the words for rubble, or conifer, or removed. So I probably wrote it in Heblish, a common language spoken by many in these parts.

Still thinking of the number of trees the JNF planted in 111 years?

OK, enough of the suspense. The JNF planted over 240 million trees, making Israel one of only two countries worldwide that entered the 21st century with a net gain in the number of trees.

Which is why the Carmel Forest fire was all the more tragic. The fire that enveloped the Mount Carmel Forest outside of Haifa raged for four days in December 2010, causing more than 17,000 locals to be evacuated, burning over 12,000 acres, destroying an estimated 1.5 million trees and tragically killing 44 people (most of them Prison Service cadets on a bus, on their way to help evacuate the Damun Prison which had been engulfed in the fire. It appeared that the bus was caught in a fireball when a blazing tree fell across the road, and all but 3 died attempting to escape the burning vehicle).

Last week, the outgoing State Comptroller issued his report into the forest fire, and heaped scathing criticism on many, including the police, the Israel Prison Service, the Israeli Fire and Rescue Service and, most vociferously, the interior minister, Eli Yishai, and finance minister, Yuval Steinitz.

The tragedy highlighted possibly two failures that permeate the public sector in Israel: incompetence (poor structural organization, as the Comptroller would say) and a lack of accountability. I think he even had to invent a Hebrew word (achrayutiut אחריותיות) for “accountability” as the concept simply doesn’t exist here.

Photo: Shimon Edri /

Let’s say one cabinet minister, let's call him Eli, says the Fire Service needs new equipment. Another cabinet minister, the one with the key to the safe, let’s call him Yuval, says “No you can’t have it, because the Fire Service is hopeless, poorly structured, couldn’t organize a party in bar,” hoping that these encouraging words will inspire structural reforms.
Eli, however, goes and sulks in the corner, and refuses to use funds from elsewhere in his office for the Fire Service (despite Israel only possessing 20 tons of fire suppressant material - some 90% less than the emergency minimum), for as long as Yuval refuses to cough up the extra money. Each stands his ground.

This is called politics.
But at the end of the day, 1.5 million trees were destroyed. And 44 people were killed.

Whilst Israelis are known to be very forward, and not to mince their words, our State Comptroller, a diplomat among politicians, and indeed a former judge, did not call for anyone’s resignation. But he did consider the infighting between the two cabinet ministers as instrumental, and concluded that their responsibility was such that “it would be fitting to point it out in concrete and practical terms.”

If you do get a chance to read any one of the 500 pages of the Comptroller’s report, that’ll be more than either Steinitz or Yishai has done.

Was anything destroyed? Yes.
Was anyone killed? Yes.
Did anyone resign?