Behind the Headlines: Israelis on the Street Ponder Country’s Reliance on U.S. Aid

Whether waiting in line to buy movie tickets or standing in line at the unemployment office, Israelis this week were talking about their country’s strained relations with the United States.

The heated but good-natured discussions, sometimes among complete strangers, often focused on Israel’s economic dependence on Washington and ways to overcome it.

While op-ed pieces in the newspapers debated whether the country would be able to absorb immigrants without the U.S. loan guarantees, many people on the street said they favor even further cutbacks of American aid as a way of deceasing what they perceive to be Israel’s “unhealthy” reliance on foreign assistance.

“Israel is an independent country and has to learn to deal with its own problems,” asserted Rikki Epshtein, an advertising representative who lives in Beit Shemesh.

Epshtein, who immigrated from the United States seven years ago, believes “we must gradually loosen our ties to America’s purse strings if we want to make our own decisions and policies.

“The Shamir government,” she said, “must realize that as long as we take money from the U.S. — or any country for that matter — the giver has the right to say how it will be used.”

“It’s time Israel stood on its own,” agreed Yair Sherman, an optometrist from Netanya. “Till now, we have been living like shtetl Jews relying on a strong goy.”

To get the country on its feet in the long term, and to assist aliyah in the short term, “we must make financial sacrifices,” said Sherman.

FEW READY TO LOWER LIVING STANDARD

This view was shared by Jerusalemite Sharon Hadad, a jewelry store employee. “If Israel wants a free hand in running its affairs, it must stop taking money from abroad,” she said. “I’m ready to lower my standard of living and to pay higher taxes.”

Hadad may be in the minority, however.

A recent survey by the Guttman Institute for Social Research found that half the younger generation of Sephardim, and a slightly higher number of Ashkenazim, would be prepared to lower their standard of living to absorb new immigrants.

Though some government officials hope that Jews in the Diaspora will fill the gap left by the loan guarantees, few Israelis expect it to happen.

“It would be great if Jews around the world could secure the loans we need, like the guarantors who co-signed my mortgage,” said Sherman, the Netanya optometrist. “Realistically, though, they’re not obliged to.”

One person not interested in the public debate is Masha Moldavskaya, who immigrated here from the Soviet Union a year ago with her husband and 8-year-old son. Both she, an English teacher, and her husband, a musician, are unemployed and “almost out of money.”

Despite the hardships, Moldavskaya said, “I’m really not interested in the politics related to loan guarantees or aliyah. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the Soviet Union, where there was always pressure to express views that weren’t our own.”

With a sigh, she added, “Right now, I’m much more worried about paying the rent.”

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