Elana Kaminka

Why your city isn’t your city and its poor aren’t first

If there’s one sentence I’m really, really, really tired of hearing from Israelis it’s “עניי עירך קודמים”- the poor of your city first. Whenever I tell people about the amazing community development projects that Tevel b’Tzedek, the organization I work for, is doing in Nepal, or the incredible volunteers who leave the comfort of their Western-world lives to work on those projects, it’s the first thing out of their mouth. The implication is that helping people outside of Israel is simply not our responsibility and not relevant to us as Israeli citizens.

Good excuse. If a rabbi said it 2000 years ago, no need to think any further. It doesn’t matter what the context was or whether you just ate a bacon cheeseburger for lunch- you’re home free. No need to think about the majority (yes the majority) of the world’s population that lives on less than $2 a day. It’s like our entire society is stuck in the egocentric stage of development that for the normal human individual, ends at around age 4.  We truly believe that our problems are the center of the world.

At the ripe old age of 65, it’s about time that we collectively grow up. Consider the following:

What have you DONE for the poor of your city?

If you just said that to me, it is highly likely that you are doing absolutely nothing for your own poor. But that doesn’t stop you from criticizing Tevel  b’Tzedek for helping people in developing countries, or make you give a second thought to the majority of the world’s population. The head of World Vision Australia (a Christian development organization) recently spoke in Tel Aviv. He mentioned that he used to get the same questions from Aussies which in the local dialect translated to “G’day mate, but wha’ about the Aborigines?”.  World Vision got so tired of hearing that question that they funded a study and found that the majority of people who say that it’s more important to give locally than internationally do neither. Those who find them equally important do both. I’d bet that we would get similar results here.

Israeli volunteer teaching Nepali women
Israeli volunteer teaching a woman in a Tevel b’Tzedek women’s group in Nepal.

Not all poverty is created equal

Are you tall or short? That depends who you’re comparing yourself to. In Holland you might be considered a midget but hey, in China you’d be recruited for the basketball team. Same goes for poverty.

The poor of your city in Israel are actually doing pretty well in comparison to those in let’s say, Nepal, where Tevel works. I’m not minimizing the challenges of being poor in Israel. Those challenges are real and urgent and I wholeheartedly support the organizations that are trying to address local poverty. But give me a break guys. The poorest poor person in Israel has comprehensive health care, 15 years of free education, unemployment benefits, police protection, the right to vote and a long list of benefits that the majority of people in the world can only dream of.

I’m sure that when the nice Amorai wrote that line in the Talmud, it really didn’t matter if you were a poor person in Pumbidita, Alexandria or Tiberius. You lived in a mud hut, wore dirty rags,  tried to grow enough food to keep you from starving, lost most of your 15 children before they reached age 2, and if you were lucky, lived to be around 35. That’s how it was everywhere. But if we could wake up Mr. Amorai now and show him the nicely dressed, well-fed, educated and healthy poor person in Israel, and the starving, illiterate, disease-ridden, disenfranchised African and ask him who we should support first, his answer might be different.

Woman making bricks by hand in factory in Kathmandu
Woman making bricks by hand in factory in Kathmandu

You really mean the poor of your religion or ethnic group

The poor of your city? Yeah, right. There are refugees, migrant workers, Palestinians and all kinds of poor people in your city that you want nothing to do with. So don’t give me a line about caring for those in your city. You really mean caring for people that are like you.

What is ‘your city’ in a global village?

You wake up in the morning on your bed sheets that were made in Bangladesh, put on your designer clothes that were sewn by a child worker in Columbia, spray on your aerosol deodorant that creates a hole in the ozone over Australia, while chatting on your iPhone that was made in China with your buddy who’s on vacation in the Maldives, breathing in the air pollution that blew in from Khazakstan and throwing away a plastic bag that will end up in the garbage island in the Pacific.

In today’s world everything we do impacts and is impacted by the rest of the world. Your city is Kathmandu as much as it’s Tel Aviv.

Being a grown up means caring for others

We want Israel to be considered a first-world nation. We love to flaunt the the fact that we made it to the OECD, we have more start-ups and Nobel prizes per capita than any other country, we invented ‘Homeland’ and ‘In Treatment’ and our army rocks. We aren’t the poor, downtrodden nation we were 64 years ago, and no, we don’t ride camels to work. But with that progress comes responsibility. It goes together. We can’t reap the benefits of being a grown-up nation without taking on its burdens.

So go ahead and support the poor of your city- I’m all for it. But if you live in Herzeliyah Pituach, or heck, any first world country, it shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore the rest of the world. It’s time to step up to the plate.


Volunteer working in Tevel youth program in Nepal
Volunteer working in Tevel youth program in Nepal.
About the Author
After having several life-changing educational experiences in her teens, Elana Kaminka dedicated many years to creating those experiences for others. Originally working in the field of Israel programs, she became fascinated by the field of development and worked for Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli NGO that both runs quality volunteer programs and does quality development work in Nepal. She is currently an independent content writer, working on a novel.