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Memo to Attorney General: Gifts are always reciprocated

Prime Minister Netanyahu claims there was no thought of a payback, but that's just not how presents work
Arnon Milchan (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the Knesset on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)
Arnon Milchan (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the Knesset on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)

‘The Gift’, published in 1925, is the masterwork of influential French (and Jewish) sociologist Marcel Mauss, and a monumental breakthrough in the study of human behavior. If Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has not yet read it, he should.

The argument is simple and compelling. The giving of gifts has an extraordinary power that creates obligation between the giver and receiver. Mauss writes: “in theory … [gifts] are voluntary, in reality they are given and reciprocated obligatorily.” Whilst he illustrates this with examples ranging from Polynesian societies to native Americans, he makes clear the principles extend to modern Western societies. Even there, he writes, “The unreciprocated gift still makes the person who has accepted it inferior, particularly when it has been accepted with no thought of returning it.” Therefore, to avoid humiliation or loss of status, “The invitation must be returned, just as ‘courtesies’ must.”

One need not be an anthropologist or sociologist to recognise the truth of this analysis. Can you think of any gift you have ever given or received from a friend that was not reciprocated in some form? When you visit a friend for dinner, you bring a gift of chocolates or a bottle of wine. This reciprocates the gift they are giving to you, of hospitality and meal. You also know you are expected at some time to host in return. Wedding, baby or bar mitzvah gifts are reciprocated in time. We may not think of this consciously when we give or receive a gift, but we all know that never to reciprocate a gift or return an invitation is rude and deeply embarrassing. Someone who never reciprocates is going to earn a reputation.

Reciprocation may not always be exactly equal, but in relations between friends it is usually in some kind of proportion. If your friend showed up for dinner and presented you with a case of fine champagne and a diamond necklace – gifts that are out of all proportion – you would feel very uncomfortable accepting them. Even if your friend is extremely wealthy, it would be humiliating to be showered with opulent gifts that you could never reciprocate, and you would not want to feel permanently indebted or obliged to the giver. That sense of obligation created by a gift, as Mauss argues persuasively, is extremely powerful.

If your friend were to show up at your house with expensive gifts for no reason at all you would consider it even stranger. It would likely cause confusion and acute embarrassment, or perhaps the fear that the gift giver has just run over your dog. A friendship where one side gives expensive gifts to the other without any form of reciprocation is frankly, weird.

So now try and imagine a friendship where one side requests expensive gifts from the other with no intention to reciprocate in any way. That is more than weird, it is completely unheard of.

So when Prime Minister Netanyahu claims that a million shekels worth of champagne, cigars and jewellery he received from Arnon Milchan and James Packer over a nine year period are ‘gifts from friends’ with no thought of reciprocation, we should all know instinctively what Mauss showed so eloquently with his scholarship: that is absolutely not how gifts or friendship work.

It is for very good reason that the law prohibits public officials from receiving expensive gifts. Gifts create a powerful relationship of obligation on the part of the receiver towards the giver. When the receiver is the prime minister, and the giver a powerful businessman with a major financial stake in the direction of public policy, the relationship is all the more dangerous and unacceptable.

About the Author
Dr. Toby Greene is Senior Research Associate at Israeli and Middle East think tank BICOM and an Israel Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University.
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