Todd Berman

American Israeli Relations: Is it time to grow up?

“It is a tremendous virtue for a person to derive his livelihood from his own hands. This attribute was possessed by the pious of the early generations. In this manner, one will merit all [types of] honor and benefit in this world and in the world to come, as [Psalms 128:2] states: ‘If you eat the toil of your hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you.’ ‘You will be happy’ – in this world. ‘It will be good for you’ – in the world to come, which is entirely good.” Rambam Hil. Talmud Torah 13:11

The rush of excitement after receiving my first real paycheck lingers with me until today. No longer beholden to my parents’ wishes, I felt like a completely independent person standing on my own two feet.  I still remember living in my parents’ home and being told that certain obligations must be met since I am spending my their money. My mother and father were decent people and while they may have never really threatened me that I had to follow their wishes, none-the-less, lack of financial independence was accompanied by limitations on personal autonomy. I clearly remember, in wake of an expensive purchase of a down comforter to get me through the cold Boston nights during graduate school, needing to somehow justify such a purchase to those suffering the winter in Florida.

Working enabled me to finally make my own decisions. It’s true that sometimes I had to learn to spend within the budget of my paycheck, but no one scrutinized my bills or could criticize my purchases.  Perhaps I couldn’t always buy what I wanted, but when I did, the choice was mine and mine alone. Freedom, especially the financial kind, tastes great.

So the announcement that under pressure of the U. S. Senate, President Obama has potentially approved the largest aid package to Israel doesn’t sit well with me. In a very real sense I am citizen of two great countries.  As a native son of the United States, I will always have respect and admiration for that great nation that opened its ports for my European immigrant grandparents and enabled my family unlimited opportunities. I am supportive of maintaining a close relationship between my ancestral home in Israel and my former home in the U.S. Two great countries which share much in common and it is hard to imagine Israel’s existence without help over the years from the U.S.

Yet, the relying on the deep pockets of Uncle Sam comes at a price; one, that I believe, is increasingly too steep. Like a child who needs to break free, I believe that it is time to decrease rather than increase our financial dependency on the United States. With 8.5 million citizens and a solid, if presently slowing economy, Israel as a member of the OECD should work towards financial independence not increased reliance.  Money can sour any relationship and the U.S. – Israel one is no different.  Independence would allow Israel to search for broader markets such as India and China. Unlike when then President Clinton reviewed our economic activity and forced Israel to damage relations with China by cancelling a major contract, we could make our own decisions. At present, as pressure mounts for BDS and bipartisan support is shaky at best, Israel can safely make prudent military and security decisions without worrying about the threat of cutting our funding hanging over our necks.

To reach this goal, Israel will certainly have to tighten its belt. That is the cost of independence. Many experts believe, even in military spending, such tightening is possible.  Top public sector salaries and  pensions, even in the military sector, are ripe for review.  Knesset members and other public managers’ salaries deserve a review and perhaps as opposed to raises, salary cuts might be more appropriate to wean Israel of the American dole.   On the other hand, by severing the strings attached to U. S. aid, Israel will be free to increase exports of military and other property. With our ingenuity and marketing, Israel can finally be free to act as other independent states do.  Furthermore, we will be able to shop around for the best military equipment and not saddled with experimental American armaments.  Basically, we can stop being a welfare program for the American arms producers.

Far too often, when discussing our security issues and the “peace process” I read of Americans snidely demanding that if we want to do what we want, then we should stop taking American money. Like a parent scolding a child, “you will do what I say as long as you are spending my money. “ Many were up in arms when presidential hopeful, Donald Trump declared that Israel will be made to pay for its aid. Such sentiments will only continue to be expressed louder and more often. For a country with a GDP of around $300billion, is the $3 to $5 billion in aid worth being beholden to the winds of the American political mood?

Eric Fromm famously described the danger of maintaining immature relationships when children or societies grow up.  In order to develop healthy, mature relationships, children must learn to live on their own. Sometimes the only way to achieve close ties is actually to sever dependency.  It may take time, thought, and a concerted effort to stop expecting a hand out from the American people. But when Israel and America can relate to one another on more equal footing, Israel will have the opportunity to grow into an adult nation. At 68, it may be time to grow up.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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