Detached From Reality

Israel’s new finance minister, Yair Lapid, has introduced the country to a fictional character by the name of Mrs. Rikki Cohen from Chadera, who, in his view, personifies the middle class.

Mrs. Cohen is a teacher who together with her high-tech husband earns NIS 20,000 a month, which has to cover the cost of raising their three children (and, presumably, dog) and traveling abroad only once every two years. She owns an apartment in Tel Aviv, but doesn’t know how she’s going to buy homes for her children.

Though Mrs. Cohen sounds like a woman in distress, we don’t know the half of it. This poor woman is literally “carrying on her back the entire Israeli economy,” according to Lapid, who demands to know: “What are we [in the government] doing for her? Do we remember we work for her?”

With this call to action, Lapid sent his number-crunchers at the Finance Ministry back to the drawing board. He wants a budget that cuts NIS 15 billion or more, but which doesn’t harm the “middle class.” He wants to ensure that Mrs. Cohen will have a few more shekels at the end of the month, and, most importantly, will get some relief for her aching back.

If the situation weren’t so sad, it would be funny. For starters, the notion of appointing a finance minister who has no background in economics is practically unheard of in the Western world. It makes about as much sense as appointing a Histadrut labor leader to be defense minister, which is what former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did in 2006. The failed Second Lebanon War is evidence of how that turned out.

Yair Lapid, a talented media personality who used his charisma and communication skills to win 19 seats in the Knesset, would have done little harm as foreign minister, who gets to travel around a lot and give interviews — things Lapid is good at. But finance minister?

In his attempt to show the “real face” of the Israeli middle class, Lapid has revealed his own real face. He has shown us that he is unfit for the job not just because he doesn’t understand the first thing about economics. He is unfit for the job because he is cut off from the people.

He has spent too many years in the high-paying, glitzy world of media — earning, according to Haaretz, NIS 2 million a year — to understand what it means to be middle class, much less poor.

Mrs. Cohen, by all objective standards, isn’t middle class. According to sociologist Dagan Buzaglo, the author of a report on poverty put out by the Adva Center research institute, she belongs to the upper class. “The ‘middle class,’ as perceived by Lapid, is fictitious,” the researcher concludes.

The problem isn’t one of semantics, but of policy. As Buzaglo notes, Lapid is captive to a mistaken view of the entire structure of Israeli society. He’s focused on the “troubles of the rich,” while ignoring the weaker classes and their distress.

Thus, in his desire to make it possible for Mrs. Cohen to travel abroad every year, he is willing to raise VAT tax from 17 percent to 18 percent, and impose it on fruits and vegetables. Instead of taxing those who “have” — the group he knows all his life and feels beholden to — he wants to tax those who don’t have, forcing them to compromise on the nutrition and health of their children.

His jaded view of society relates to the chareidi world, as well. He is convinced that chareidim are freeloaders, riding on the backs of hard-working, over-taxed people like Mrs. Cohen. The solution, in his view, is to stop all assistance to these “takers,” so that the “productive” segment of society can finally enjoy the fruit of its labors.

This view, which is similarly detached from reality, was inciting and dangerous when it found expression in his columns and speeches over the years. But they could be devastating if they become policy at the Finance Ministry.

None other than Guy Rolnick, the editor of Haaretz’s economic newspaper TheMarker, took aim at Lapid this week. “When Lapid entered his new office, he was forced to confront for the first time [facts and figures] that he and his friends have until now been able to avoid. … It is not the chareidim, nor the residents of Yehudah and Shomron [who are taking up all the tax funding], but a small group of well-organized, moneyed interests who control the national resources, the lawmaking and enjoy the privileges.

“The chareidim may come away the beneficiaries of this government without chareidim,” he continued, “because in another two or three years, it will no longer be possible to market the story that our economic problems are due to the chareidim.”

To be fair, it doesn’t take a formal education in economics to run an economy. For many years, the powerful Knesset Finance Committee was headed by MKs from United Torah Judaism, including, in recent years, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman and Rabbi Moshe Gafni. They, and their predecessors, had no formal economic education, but they worked hard and, most importantly, knew whence they came. They are part of their communities and understand their very real needs.

Lapid can learn economics on the job, with the help of the many professional advisers at his disposal. The question, though, is can he learn to feel the distress of those who are genuinely in need, and care enough to do something about it.