This was the purpose of the forced labor (devar ha-mas) which Solomon imposed: It was to bild the House of the Lord, his own palace, the Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem… (1 Kings 9:15)
According to the Bible, Solomon depended on this forced labor – mas in Hebrew – to realize his many glorious building projects. The mas, imposed on Israel, was much resented. When Solomon died, the people are reported to have complained to his son, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke which your father laid on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4). Given the heavily negative resonance of the word mas in the Bible – so negative that some scholars have suggested that Solomon’s labor conscription was so traumatic that it spawned the story of the Exodus (transforming the oppressor from Solomon to the Egyptians) – I cannot help but think that some playful mischief was behind the choice to update this word, mas, to mean “tax” in modern Hebrew.
This week the Israeli government voted to raise taxes, pretty much across the board. Income taxes and the VAT will both increase slightly, and taxes on some items were raised dramatically. I do not know if this tax increase needs formal Knesset approval, but if it does, it will be pro forma. Since “the government” consists of the ministers who also lead a majority of seats in the Knesset, they effectively make the decision.
As an American, I was struck by how fast and smooth the process was. I may not have been fully aware of the public discourse here, but it seemed to me that it lasted only a few week and even then occasionally migrated to the inside pages of the paper. Israelis certainly complained about it, but there was no Tea Party, no public demonstrations, no calls to fire the government. The government claims that the tax increase, along with budget cuts, are necessary to keep Israel from losing economic ground. Whether this claim is correct or not, Israelis apparently grudgingly accept their government’s right to make it.
This, of course, makes me reflect on the hysterical public discourse in the U.S. every time the subject of raising taxation is raised. Taxes, more than any social issue, split the nation. Nor is it only a matter of public discourse. What happened in Israel this week would be unthinkable in the U.S., simply because the structure of government does not allow it. The “division of power”, with issues of taxation entrusted to Congress, has insured from our beginning that every attempt to raise taxes would be an uphill fight. Our Founders, with their own traumatic encounters with British taxation, were decidedly anti-tax, even as they struggled to figure out a way to pay for government services.
Personally, I find the overblown rhetoric about taxation in the U.S. to be ridiculous. I don’t like taxes, don’t want to pay more of them, and am often frustrated when I see how my taxes are spent. I do recognize, though, the need to have an adult conversation about the role of government, priorities, and how we are to pay for them in a responsible way. This is a discussion that we simply seem incapable of having now, and I very much doubt that the upcoming election, whoever wins, will change that. So I envy the ability of the Israeli government to act quickly and decisively for the public weal.
Yet, on the other hand, the Founders had a point: giving thirty people, each with their own personal interests and ambitions, the sole right to levy taxes is asking for trouble. It seemed too easy. With all of the recent awareness in Israel of the eroding economic position of the middle class (much as in the U.S., but complicated by using the more generous Israeli safety net as a reference point), shouldn’t there have been a much more serious public discourse?
Maybe I am simply by constitution too much of a centrist, but I can’t help believing that there is a middle way.