A single sentence could serve as a lead for two separate articles: "One hundred ninety billion shekels in under-the-table cash flows through the Israeli economy with viral abandon."
One could then write that had the government established a commando tax force and gotten its hands on a major portion of that money, the tent protest would have been made redundant. Mere tax collection would be enough to provide for everyone's welfare.
Had this happened, one could have written in another article about a more dramatic, less central, but also significant topic, that the stature of crime families had shrunk to an insignificant player in the market.
That mountain of money is not the sole cause of the crisis among the class of people who contribute to Israeli society. It is not the only reason that doctors, architects, athletes, artists, and businessmen, all of whom pay taxes, require the underworld’s services.
But it is one of the central factors in the nation’s socioeconomic crisis. The tycoons, the Haredi-Arab sector’s evasion of employment and addiction to children’s welfare benefits, and the Israel Land Authority’s monopoly also contribute to the crisis.
The proportion of under-the-table money is so high in the Israeli economy for a number of reasons. One of them is that cheating has become legitimate over time. Hoodwinking the government is accepted practice. As if Jews still live in the Diaspora.
In an initial conversation with a customer, a tradesman has no fear of offering to work off the books, so that his customer doesn't have to pay VAT tax. A plumber or body-shop repairman is confident that no one would turn him in to law enforcement. There is no fear because all shame has been lost.
Judge Haim Cohen was the first to blurt out, among his many insights, the ridiculous statement that a financial violation is merely administrative. That fell on attentive ears because, during that period, Israel had just embarked on a selfish, everyone-out-for-himself social trend, which rejected any individual obligation to community and society.
But the growth of our "black money" bubble has become a national plague, perhaps, “the” national plague. The Tax Authority grew corrupt and threw up its hands. “The rug slipped out” from under State Prosecution’s feet and lethargy led it to seek cheap plea bargains or any pretext to close a case. In contrast to well-functioning nations, someone in Israel caught cheating on their taxes who paid a penalty or even served a brief prison term, can still maintain a powerful, high and respectable standing in society.
It is worth taking a look at how the Israeli upper class, the crowd that frequently appears in gossip columns, welcomes the return of those who have completed a sentence for tax evasion. They are not shunned at all. There is no moral condemnation, disgrace, or shame.
This phenomenon gives rise to depressing but warranted thoughts. Many hosts welcome the perpetrators with open arms, because they know that mere chance puts them on the right side of this embrace, rather than on the convict’s receiving end.
There are two ways to address this issue. The short-term and interim solution is to put a halt to plea bargains, bring perpetrators to trial, conduct trials that are decisive, sentence tax offenders to long hauls in prison, and write harshly critical judgements.
In parallel, we need a protracted process involving individual effort to create an educational climate in which tax offenders acquire a bad name. This approach would cause them to feel besieged, just like the prevailing attitude built over a period years toward sex offenders.
When black money is “laundered” through adherence to the law, the state’s revenues will increase. When your money is clean you won't require the services of organized crime to settle a conflict between business partners. When your money is black you need underworld arbitrators. When your money is “white” you turn to the courts.
It is not clear that the money Margalit Tzanani was fighting over with her agent was black money. But if the money was acquired legally, why seek the services of Amir Mulner’s organization rather than those of Judge Varda Alshech? If income in the entertainment industry were widely reported, why would promoters, entertainers, band members, soccer leagues, respected physicians, and legitimate businessmen maintain relations with the crime world? They would seek to avoid the initial inconvenience and the later inescapable grip.
Budget cuts and demagoguery
I have paid annual visits to the IDF Chief of General Staff’s office. Shaul Mofaz, Moshe (Bogey) Ya’alon, Dan Halutz, and Gabi Ashkenazi all broadcast a clear message: there is a red line in the defense budget that cannot be overstepped. They later compromise with the Finance Ministry and lower their demands. That has become an ongoing ritual.
There is waste in the defense budget. Billions could be saved if different pension levels were established for combat, quasi-combat, and non-combat personnel, and if the retirement age was not uniform for all. It is also possible to relieve the IDF of unnecessary bases.
Despite that, demagoguery reigns. Commentators who talk about moving IDF General Staff headquarters from the Kirya in Tel Aviv to an alternate site are throwing sand in our eyes. That move would cost billions before saving hundreds of millions.
People love to hate the defense budget. They blame it for the economy’s ills. The Finance Ministry does not fear it. They know that a tank cannot pitch a tent on Rothschild Boulevard and a warplane cannot build a goat pen in Kikar Hamedina. The results of budget cuts came to light in 2006 in the form of the IDF’s questionable capabilities in the Second Lebanon War.
The David Brodet Committee later convened and drafted a 10-year plan for the military. Though Ashkenazi was in the habit of saying that he was not happy with it, the Brodet Report, at least, allows for long-term planning. We must implement it. Arguing with the military as opposed arguing to within it has proven an ineffective strategy that did not stand up to the Brodet Report's scrutiny. We must stop characterizing military spending as an enemy of the state.
Dr. Yuval Steinitz wonders why the Accountant-General cannot manage the defense budget. Following that logic, we should grant the director-general of the Finance Ministry an emergency appointment as commander of the Northern Front in the event that war breaks out. The easiest thing to do is harm the defense budget. The hardest thing to do is suffer the consequences.
They should fear the police
One murder follows on the heels of another. A couple in Jerusalem, a security guard in Rishon Lezion, a merchant in Hod Hasharon, a cyclist in Jaffa. “Shall the sword devour forever? (2 Samuel 2:26)”
The significant spike in the murder rate is no coincidence. The direct cause is the enlarged work force that makes its living in the context of crime families. There are more enlisted personnel, and a more frequent pulling of triggers.
The other cause is circumstantial. The crime world has lost a considerable portion of its fear of our blue-uniformed forces. The criminals frequently come out ahead in conflicts. This was expressed publicly in Nahariya. Desperate police hurt a crime family. They rightfully stood trial.
But the bottom line is that police lost that contest: the crime family remains active; the police were cast aside, paralyzed, and distanced from their jobs; and no one has been able to arrange for them to earn a decent living.
But Nahariya is not alone. No one deludes themselves about that. There are many, many Nahariyas. But the police in those places do not take the law into their own hands and no one knows.
The multiple organizations which supposedly protect civil rights actually compromise those rights. Police recoil from acting. They would rather remain alive and well than enter a mortally sick fray. It may be a paradox, but it is also a reality: the more citizens fear police (to a reasonable extent), the better off citizens will be.
“Law and Order,” the new season
The unrest in London has passed, and now seems to have never existed. David Cameron has announced the return of “law and order” to the streets of the capital.
Not a single one of his ministers responded by declaring that “time is ripe for an upheaval in the coalition.” In fact, not a single one of them uttered a word. Then, the Prime Minister announced that residents of public housing who were involved in the riots would be evicted. No one opened his mouth.
And London will remain calm. If not for 40 years, then at least for now.
The Alterman Era
Since Nathan Alterman passed away in 1970, his status as national poet has grown, overshadowing the claims of his detractors Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Zach, and Dan Miron, who insinuate that he was a “court poet.”
The latest in a long list of Alterman scholars is District Court Judge Menahem (Paco) Finkelstein, who recently published a book entitled Hator Hashvui Vetohar Haneshek (The Weekly Column and Purity of Arms). Paco served as the chief military advocate general. Before that he was the chief military prosecutor. He grappled with problems that arose in the Intifada and in Lebanon. The Right maintained that he brought soldiers to trial in crushing, wholesale numbers. The Left maintained the opposite.
One day, Palestinians from Beit Jala shot at the neighborhood of Gilo. The IDF responded. A German doctor volunteered to treat the wounded Arabs and was killed. Finkelstein decided not to bring any of the IDF soldiers to trial. The Left prepared to ambush him upon his arrival in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Zahava Gal-On, Naomi Hazan, and Yuli Tamir geared up to wage a verbal battle. Sensitive to political criticism, Paco enlisted in his defense Alterman’s, “Plague Poems.” He read it to the Knesset members: "For the dagger is righteous in its judgment, but in its wake always leaves, like a taste of salt, the tears of the innocent." The last line was the clincher. The Left let him be.
The Right was not to be outdone. They attacked the indictments and Paco again turned Alterman into his flak jacket. He cited the rhyming verse written at the height of the War of Independence about an IDF soldier who needlessly killed in conquest: “The boy smiled, showing milk teeth, ‘I’ll try the gun.’ He tried, the man covered his face, didn’t try to run. Then his blood covered the wall.”
David Ben-Gurion was moved. “I commend your moral force,” he wrote the poet, asking his permission to distribute the poem to soldiers actively engaged in fighting the war.
Alterman admired Ben-Gurion. He praised Moshe Dayan, writing, “The land of Israel spreads over you like the dawn.” But he was also capable of disagreeing with Ben-Gurion for dismantling the Palmach, for accepting German reparations, for discriminating against the Arab minority, and for his understanding of the actions of Amnon Zichroni, who, as a soldier, declared that he was a pacifist and refused to carry arms. In that context, Alterman cited his 1930's poem: “Don’t give them guns.”
He was an outright Zionist, although his criticism of discrimination against the Arab minority created a certain distance between himself and Ben-Gurion. He was enraged by the 1956 massacre at Kfar Qassem. Former Chief of General Staff Haim Laskov and generals Yitzhak Rabin and Haim Bar-Lev came to hear the ruling against then-Colonel Issachar (Iska) Shedmi. One of them made a sarcastic comment which has become ubiquitous since then: they came to see whether every soldier would be forced to take his own attorney into the battlefield.
After the Six-Day War, Alterman changed his political orientation. He joined the movement for a Greater Israel. There is no explanation for that except that the trauma of the terrifying wait that preceded the war caused him unprecedented existential anxiety. His support of a Greater Israel earned him many adversaries.
Paco, who was raised in the national-rReligious education system, was only familiar in his youth with Alterman the songwriter. He sang, “In the mountains, the sun is already hot,” a song written for a Zionist public relations film, or “Calaniot (anemones).” Like all Israelis, he was familiar with Alterman’s “Silver Platter,” but he was never exposed to “Stars Outside.”
His research is not lyrical. It is political and legal. What is his real opinion of the political positions of the never-ending poet? What are his own hidden views? It appears to me that it is possible to guess, but we cannot know for sure. Finkelstein is an active judge, and he keeps his opinions to himself.