As I learned from my mother, the greatest gift government can provide for the poor is employment opportunities and education.
Having been born and raised in America, and having lived in Israel since the age of 21 – some 40-odd years – I have spent my life juggling my American-ness and Israeli-ness.
Sometimes, they overlap. The can-do attitude of the Yankee Doodle Dandy image I grew up with, the resourceful, smart, hardworking and successful American who needs and wants nothing more than opportunity to better his life, is also a very Israeli image. The tank commander who finds himself alone behind enemy lines and invents a formidable “Force Tsvika” to fool the enemy, for example. Or any number of the “seat of the pants” ways in which the early Israeli pioneers created a country.
As an American, nothing was clearer to me growing up than that no obstacles stood in the way of my becoming and achieving anything I wanted, not poverty, being an orphan, or lack of connections; and that nothing was worse or more demeaning than to be cared for by any government program.
When my mother was widowed and left with three small children whom she could not yet leave to go to work, she had no choice but to apply for welfare. Government-subsidized low-income housing, which we had had no choice but to apply for during our father’s illness, put a roof over our heads. It was in Rockaway Beach, a horrible housing project of faceless red brick buildings with chains around the grass.
And when my father died, I remember the Housing Authority official, a young, officious-looking woman wearing a smart black suit with a red flower (incidentally, she was black, which I mention simply to upturn any stereotypes) told my mother that since she was widowed, she now needed to move into a smaller apartment, giving up her bedroom. “Since you don’t have a husband, you can sleep with one of your kids,” she said.
I will never forget my mother’s humiliation and helplessness as we packed our things for the move down the hall. With her checklist of bureaucratic regulations and heartlessness, this government official made it clear to me that you never wanted to be in a place where you were dependent on government programs, no matter how well-meaning and benevolent. The housing might have been subsidized, but the price was inhumanly high.
My mother could have remained on welfare and in government housing her whole life if she had wanted to, but instead, she got a job as soon as she could. She got off welfare and out of the projects, moving us to a lovely two-family house in a leafy street named after the writer Charles Dickens. She worked as a senior secretary until she retired, enjoying every minute, supporting her family with no help from anyone. In her later years, what she enjoyed more than anything was putting small bills into the white envelopes that came with the dozens of charity solicitation letters that reached her every year.
Listening to the speakers at the Republican National Convention that took place in Florida last week, I was moved by how many of the speakers told similar stories.
Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, told how his Cuban immigrant parents had arrived penniless to the US from a country no longer free, and how America had allowed them the opportunity to work hard and dream hard.
“My father worked as a bartender in the back of the room so that I could stand at this podium in front of the room,” said Rubio.
Again and again, I was moved by the celebration of loving, hardworking parents, loyalty to wives, commitment to raising families, and the love of God. It was a reaffirmation of the America I once knew, a place where people worked hard, saved, and strove through education to better their lives. No one wanted, or expected, handouts or quick riches. No one wanted, or expected, the government to become part of their life, unless they were very, very unlucky, unthrifty, lazy, ill, or had suffered tragedy.
President Barack Obama, speaking in Omaha on September 1, characterized these ideas as a “rerun of the same old policies that have been sticking it to the middle class for years.” Yes, ideas that I grew up with in the Fifties, ideas that turned America into the most prosperous and most powerful country in the world. As Marco Rubio said, “the only change [brought about by Obama] in the last four years is that hope is hard to find.”
As I learned from my mother, the greatest gift government can provide for the poor is employment opportunities and education. Or as Mitt Romney said: “What America needs is jobs, lots of jobs.”
Obama – quite aside from his disastrous policies toward Israel, which after four years of “talking to Iran” now leave us facing a nuclear-armed, genocidal regime that continues to publicly declare its intention of wiping Israel off the map – is destroying the best things about America, my birthplace.
When my great-grandparents emigrated to America from Fastov in the Ukraine in 1909, they came to get away from the all-pervasive influence of government that restricted and embittered their lives and economic activities. They came because America was a new country with new ideas; a country that gave people not streets paved with gold, but opportunities to use their creativity and labor to build something of their own. Many immigrants did build businesses of their own, most of them mom-and-pop shops, that paid the taxes that built the roads, not the other way around.
Listening to Mitt Romney, who built something of his own with his creativity and hard work; to Paul Ryan, whose parents did the same, I was flooded by the memories of the America I had been born into, and the values I had been brought up with.
But something has happened to America in the past few years. I don’t know how to describe it except to give you the following example. Years ago, I was on a flight from one American city to another when the boarding-pass machine broke down. After waiting patiently for more than two hours, we were still told no one could board until the machine was fixed.
I remember thinking to myself then: if this were Israel, some former tank commander-turned-airline employee would be writing out boarding passes by hand by this point and getting this show on the road. The Americans seemed truly paralyzed by this situation. The passengers made no demands that airline employees get their act together, and seeming to regard the mess as an act of God.
This is the attitude I see in many of Obama’s supporters, who after the dismal failure of the past four years wish to elect him for another term. I find that not only inexplicable on a rational level, but anti-American in the deepest sense, going against every American value I cherish.
As an Israeli, there is no question in my mind that Mitt Romney, who spoke of Israel with such warmth, and who believes a free world is a more peaceful world, will not be bowing to the king of Saudi Arabia, or making a dear friend out of Turkish Islamist Ergodan when he is elected. But the reason that I will use my overseas voting ballot to vote for him is not because I’m Israeli, but because I am an American.
I will vote for him not because his ideas are new, but because they are the same solid, unchanging ideas that are the bedrock of America’s greatness. His promises – to make use of America’s own energy sources to make her energy independent; to forge trade agreements with consequences for countries that don’t play fair; to cut the deficit by spending less; and to show America’s friends more loyalty – may not be new, but they will make America a better, more successful country.
Most of all, I believe him when he promises to get America working again, ending the heartbreak of 23 million unemployed Americans. It’s a promise his opponents will no doubt make as well. But unlike the incumbent, a law professor with no experience in business of any kind, Romney is a successful businessman with actual, real-world experience regarding how such jobs are created. He is also a person grounded in tried and true American values. He is someone I understand as I never have understood Barack Obama, and still don’t.
Rededicating Americans to the ideas that once made their country the most powerful force for good in the world may not be trendy or new, but it is the best way forward for America, for Israel, and for every decent person hoping for a better life everywhere in the world.
This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 09 September 2012.