When Poverty is Worth Less

SECOND OPINION

By Avi Shafran

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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‘Chutzpah” was the title of an editorial in the June 6 issue of the Forward; the alleged audacity referred to was the Republican leadership’s exclusion of low-wage families from the recently enacted increase in the federal tax credit for families with dependent children.

The editorial noted that “50 million households — those that most need it — would get nothing” under the Republican plan, while other American families, those that earn enough to pay income taxes, would receive tax credits to the tune of $400 per child. That result, the editorial averred, was “perverse” and “mean-spirited.”

Fast “forward” to last week’s July 11 issue.

There, one finds an editorial entitled “Agudath Israel’s Bogus Bonus,” which, while never getting around to explaining what was bogus about its subject, decried my organization’s establishment of a special fund to help replace the recently curtailed one-time-per-child grant that Israel provides to Israeli parents of newborn children. That grant has long served not only to provide families with a modest sum to assist them as they care for a new addition, but also to signal the importance of population growth. However, the new Israeli government, seeking to address severe budgetary problems — and perhaps, as the editorial suggests, engage in some social engineering to boot — has cut the per-newborn child subsidy from about $309 to $93 for each child after a couple’s firstborn.

Recognizing the severe impact this cutback will have on some of Israel’s neediest families, and the importance as well of continuing to encourage Israeli Jews to have children, we at Aguda have decided to raise funds among our constituents in the United States to help make up the per-child shortfall for needy Israeli Jewish parents. In addition, we have reached out to United Jewish Communities, suggesting that it likewise consider allocating charitable funds to help repair the breach in the Israeli “baby bonus” safety net.

Last week, the Forward found both our initiative and our invitation to UJC entirely unpleasant. It makes no sense, admonishes the paper’s editorial, for American Jewish communal organizations “to spend [their] limited funds on campaigns to undermine Israeli government policy.”

Like the Forward, other traditional Jewish proponents of social welfare here in the United States seem to have a different perspective on the issue when it comes to meeting the needs of Israeli families with children. For example, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Mark Pelavin, maintains that the recent federal tax bill’s exclusion of low-income families from per-child tax relief “directly violates” the responsibility “to provide for the poor.” Yet, his colleague at the world arm of the Reform movement, ARZA/World Union executive director Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, is quoted by the Forward as saying that the effort to provide needy Israeli Jewish families with a one-time small grant “does not represent the mainstream priorities of American Jewry or the priorities of donors to the federation.”

What emerges here is a confusing double-standard: Poor families in the United States are entitled to economic help when they have children, it would appear, by simple virtue — and a virtue it is indeed — of the responsibility the more fortunate have to care for the less fortunate.

The Jewish poor in Israel, however, are unworthy of the same.

Ah, but there is good reason for the inconsistency. In Israel, you see, “there’s something larger going on,” the Forward’s editorialist reminds us. “Ultra-Orthodox, or charedi, Jews are expanding exponentially as a share of the Israeli population, thanks to a high birth rate that’s practically subsidized by government child allowances.” Most of those charedim, it seems “don’t work, don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the army.” That is why they are undeserving of assistance.

So all is explained. Impoverished Americans — many of whom, surely, are poor at least in part because of life-choices such as dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock and drug use — must be provided generous financial assistance in raising their children. But Israel’s poor — many of whom are charedim, whose poverty is a product of their choice to dedicate their lives to the study and observance of the Jewish religious tradition — have no claim on any such assistance.

Most American Jews, to be sure, may find it odd that men and women in our day and age will willingly forgo opportunities to enjoy the material rewards that come with full-time employment in favor of lives of study and observance. But there are such men and women, both in our own country and in Israel. They regard Torah study much like most moderns regard medical research: as something so worthy in its own right that it is worth pursuing, even if it brings economic disadvantage.

There may be a small percentage of draft-dodgers or freeloaders in Israel’s yeshiva system, but they are overwhelmed by the vast majority of Torah-students who, along with their wives and children, live their Jewish idealism to the fullest — and, in the process, enhance the Jewish character of the Jewish state immeasurably. One can agree or disagree with the lifestyle they choose, but certainly their hungry babies have no less a moral claim on a humanitarian safety net than do those whose parents are poor for other reasons.

In its “Chutzpah” editorial, the Forward chides Jewish federated philanthropies for lobbying on behalf of state social-services allotments at the expense of a federal per-child tax credit for the poor. “[T]he charity chiefs say the fate of the low-income child tax credits is not their problem,” tsk-tsks the editorial. “After all, it’s not their kids who will go hungry.”

That sentiment seems equally, if not more, appropriate applied here.

Aguda is seeking to enlist American Jews of good will to assist Israeli Jews of limited means — charedi and otherwise, but that should be of no matter — through the private sector. For Jewish opponents of charedim to portray that attempt to help other Jews as some sort of sinister machination to advance a creeping charedi plague is unkind and unfair.

In fact, a less polite observer might well call it perverse and mean-spirited.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.






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