There is no good time for a humanitarian crisis. But the timing of the current refugee crisis, so close upon Rosh Hashana, may actually bring some good.
Just as it is incumbent upon us to make an individual spiritual accounting, a cheshbon hanefesh, it is equally important that we make a national cheshbon hanefesh as well. When an individual aims to evaluate where he stands, he needs to remember that he is not the same person he was ten years ago, or even one year ago. We are dynamic. Hopefully, we have improved, but we certainly have changed. And if we are better than we were in the past, what was challenging then may no longer be challenging now. Accordingly, if we want to continue improving, we will need to look for new, more appropriate challenges.
Almost from its inception, Israel excelled in giving strategic aid to other nations in need. Whether it was exporting drip irrigation to developing countries, taking in Vietnamese refugees or setting up emergency care for disaster victims in Bosnia, Haiti and Nepal, many have vividly witnessed the Jewish state’s concern for others.
And for a ‘small country,’ our record speaks for itself. After all, as the Prime Minister pointed out on Sunday, being small means that there is only so much you can do. The only problem is that this is a highly problematic description of Israel today. It is true that our territory is fairly small and our population not overwhelming either. But in spite of those two not insignificant limitations, Israel has become one of the world’s leading nations. If we were to look at military power, for example, according to Global Firepower (GFP), Israel ranks 11th in the world. For the record, and to put things into perspective, Iran ranks 23rd.
Even more significant, the World Bank’s 2014 report placed Israel as 24th in per capita income. That puts it two spots ahead of Japan and three ahead of Italy. Spain, which has just agreed to accept 15,000 refugees, ranks lower still. And while it is true that Spain has about six times as many people as Israel, were we to act with the same level of generosity as Spain, we would be welcoming 2,500 refugees. Nor is this really such a novelty. If we are unaware of our own strength and ability to do more, the rest of the world is generally not.
Let us even assume that there are real and insurmountable strategic or socio-demographic factors that prevent us from absorbing refugees in this crisis. This does not take away from the fact that we are just not pulling our weight. The latest OECD figures on Official Development Aid (ODA) have Israel giving .07 percent of its GNP. Spain, which is not considered exemplary, is giving twice as much. To me, this is nothing less than an embarrassment. It would be bad enough if Israel were just another country. It is much worse since we are the ones that truly developed the concept of helping the needy to begin with.
It is true that Israel faces unique challenges, socially, militarily and otherwise. But it would not be that difficult for us to do more for the global poor. And though we have our share of needy people at home, the level of need in the third world tends to be much greater, with hundreds of millions of people still living on less than $1.25 a day. And since we can, we really must do more to alleviate the suffering. As I have argued elsewhere, it is the right thing to do from a Torah perspective. And it is certainly the right thing to do from a more general humanitarian perspective, as well.
I don’t think that Israel’s low level of ODA comes from selfishness and, certainly not, maliciousness. More likely, it is a result of living in the past. We once were a developing nation, where every extra shekel or lira had to be spent on defense. The claim that we simply don’t have the resources to help would certainly have been correct in 1949 and in 1963. It might even have been true in 1975 and into the 1980’s. It is simply no longer true today. With Rosh Hashana around the corner, this is something the Jewish nation must really deal with.