How does the concept of “tzedakah” apply to government, especially in Israel, since it is a Jewish state? Does the government also have a religious obligation to provide for the needy members of society? Or is this just an issue for individuals?
Actually it is difficult to place an obligation on a government, specially when the government is a patchwork of different, and often differing parties.
No doubt there is a an individual obligation on everyone who is part of the governing process to be true to his/her promises. These are sacred, and must be kept, as long as it is within the porovince of the promiser to keep.
So, if a party plank is to look after every needy individual, that promise must be kept.
On the other hand, absent a promise, any government that tries to actually provide for every needy, indeed every need, will collapse under the burden.
It is right for the government to look after its citizens, but even on such a basic as providing for the needy, there exists a fundamental difference in strategy on how to achieve this - whether by direct support, or by strengthening the economy and expanding the opportunities available.
This much it is fair to say - every government must, as its foremost responsibility, assure the safety, viability, and prosperity of the country and its inhabitants. That this is its primary moral responsibility is clear. What is unclear is how to best achieve this goal.
Answer: The State of Israel was constituted as a Jewish State (see United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, November 29, 1947: “Independent Arab and Jewish States…shall come into existence in Palestine;” and the State of Israel Declaration of Independence, 5 Iyyar, 5708 = May 14, 1948: “We…hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel”). That fact notwithstanding, the State and its government, as presently constituted by the legal traditions of the State, are run in accordance with the principles of secular law. Even though Halakhah – Jewish religious law – is, from time to time, consulted and applied, it does not have the final say in Knesset legislation or in the rulings of Israel’s court system (expect for matters of marriage and divorce, which are in the hands of the religious court system of the Israeli Rabbinate). We can, therefore, conclude that the government has no “religious obligations” and there is no religious mandate, grounded in the authority of God, for the government of the State of Israel to provide tz’dakah for the needy members of society.
That having been said, there is no question that principles of tz’dakah motivated the founding generations of the State of Israel to create social funding programs that performed the functions tz’dakah has played over the centuries. David Ben Gurion, in a message to the Zionist Organization of American Administrative Committee in January, 1941, noted that there was no way that traditional tz’dakah could meet the needs of a ruined European Jewry after the war. Only a Jewish commonwealth could manage this task (see Monty Noam Penkower, “Ben-Gurion, Silver, and the 1941 UPA National Conference for Palestine: A Turning Point in American Zionist History,” in Jeffrey S. Gurock, ed., American Jewish History, vol. 8: American Zionism: Mission and Politics, p. 333). Ben-Gurion is indicating here that a Jewish state has the capacity and obligation to transcend what tz’dakah can accomplish.
Ben-Gurion was not a religious person; he was thinking in nationalistic, secular Zionist terms of what Jews, as a people, must do for other Jews, who are their compatriots. I think it is legitimate to suggest, however, that the giving of tz’dakah and pidyon sh’vuyyim (redeeming captives), which are mitzvot (religious obligations) in traditional Judaism, and the Biblical notion of kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of exiles) were embedded in Ben-Gurion’s mind when he, and others, conceived of a Jewish State that would provide for the needs of downtrodden Jews who would enter the state after its establishment. The Israeli Law of Return, that allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immediately receive Israeli citizenship and financial assistance upon immigrating, is an example of such a program.
Throughout the generations, Jewish communities have taxed their citizens in order to provide for the poor. As Meir Tamari notes in his now classic work, With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life, “…Judaism [as a system of religious values (JR)] also provides a moral basis for the power of society to tax its members so as to provide for the needy and weak (p. 52).” At the same time, Tamari notes, it was expected that Jews would voluntarily give tzedakah above and beyond such taxation. Such efforts have also existed in Israel since its founding, in both the secular and religious communities. It is said, however, that because of Israel’s socialistic orientation during the first decades of its existence, the government and the Jewish Agency for Israel sought to take care of the needy, and this, to a certain degree supplanted the religious principle of the mitzvah of voluntary charitable giving. There is no question that the mitzvah of tz’dakah remained fully operative in the religious community. Interestingly, as an NGO, the Jewish Agency was funded by charitable contributions from the Diaspora, and it resonated with Jews around the world as one of the most important tz’dakah efforts of the Jewish people.
In recent years, with the shift to privatization and a more entrepreneurial economy in Israel, tax incentives for private investment were initiated. These tax cuts, in turn, resulted in reductions in the State budget – including social programs – that had a negative economic impact on Israel’s poor. The gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened. Over the past few years, however, the government has developed a number of programs to deal with such problems. Moreover, the “Occupy Tel-Aviv” protests of the past summer resulted in accelerated government activity in this area, the results of which have yet to be seen.
Israel is no longer a country with an emerging economy. There is now wealth in Israel in a way that there never has been in the past. We are now seeing wealthy funders and corporations creating foundations supporting a wide range of tz’dakah projects in Israel. And, as this activity gains momentum, it will expand into all levels of Israeli society. It is too early to determine the degree to which this, in the long run, can help bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, but it is a significant and hopeful development.
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