Sunday, May 6, 2012

The reluctant philanthropists

Horsemen of the handout:

Today the halukkah comes from the working public. This public - both Jews and Arabs - pays taxes and bears the burden, and in recent years it has taken the place of the 'new philanthropist.'

Salman Masalha || The reluctant philanthropists

In the middle of the eighth century, the Muslim caliph, Hisham Ibn Abd al-Malik, sent a special emissary to the king of Turkistan. The king asked his translator to clarify what the emissary wanted. The emissary explained the caliph's request to the king, saying that he wished for him and his subjects to adopt the Muslim faith. "And what is this Islam?" the king asked him. The emissary expounded on the commandments and the prayers, and explained what was permitted and what was prohibited by Islam.

Ten days later, the king returned accompanied by ten flag bearers and asked the emissary to join him. "We rode a full night until we reached a hill," the emissary related, "and when the sun came up, the king ordered every flag bearer to wave his flag. Whenever a flag bearer waved his banner, 10,000 armed cavalry would arrive in the valley below and their commander would approach the king and salute him. The ceremony continued in this manner until 100,000 cavalry had gathered in the valley." We shall return later to the king's response to the caliph's emissary. It is not important whether events like that really took place. The story is merely an allegory for what has been bothering the public in Israel these past few years. From time to time, the social tension between the ultra-Orthodox and secular people comes to the fore. For example, when it was proposed to split Beit Shemesh into two separate entities, Interior Minister Eli Yishai immediately began protesting: "The Haredi town will be without income, without taxes and without industry," he declared in an interview with an ultra-Orthodox radio station. "It is not right to do that."

Tzuriel Krispel, mayor of the predominantly Haredi town of Elad, also explained the danger of having a separate entity for the ultra-Orthodox. In a Haredi town, he said, most of the residents get reductions in their property tax, and a town cannot exist in that fashion. Therefore it was preferable that the ultra-Orthodox live with secular people.

Living at the expense of philanthropists is not a new custom in this region. Once upon a time, it was known as halukkah [distribution of charity]. The people of Jerusalem, for example, lived that way - not only now, but from a long way back. This is what was written about them in 1887: "The halukkah is almost a partner to all the people of Jerusalem ... A Jerusalemite views the halukkah as a national fund that must not be revoked from him, as a secure inheritance from his forefathers, and as a right that must not be doubted. It has never occurred to any one of them to do without it ... Most of them see in the halukkah a basic means of existence." That is how Dr. Chaim Hissin described the charity culture, in his diary.

Hissin added: "It distracted the masses from the struggle for existence of every individual, [who would otherwise] have to earn a living with his own capabilities and look for his bread honestly." Moreover, Dr. Hissin summed up what he had observed as the nature of the Jerusalemite: "It is not sufficient that he does not give, but he also receives and his sense of honesty remains completely unperturbed." (from "The Diary of a Bilu Member," 1925." )

Today the halukkah comes from the working public. This public - both Jews and Arabs - pays taxes and bears the burden, and in recent years it has taken the place of the "new philanthropist." A large percentage of a constantly-growing population remains idle and eats at the table of those who work in Israel.

Let's go back to the story of the king of Turkistan and the caliph's emissary. When the tens of thousands of horsemen were lined up in the valley before him, the king turned to the translator and said: "Tell the emissary to explain to his master that among all of these men, there is not even one healer, one shoemaker or one tailor. If they take on the Islamic faith and adhere to the commandments of the religion, where will they get food?"

And in that context, it is worth mentioning to all of those who insist on adhering to the halukkah: "If there is no flour, there is no Torah." And to paraphrase the words of the king of Turkistan - if they "become Muslims," what will they eat?

Published: Opinions-Haaretz, May 6, 2012

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