About eight years ago, I had a conversation with Danny Atar, head of the regional council of Gilboa, which governs the agricultural communities in the vicinity of the northern Israeli town of Afula.
When I asked him what would be the one thing that he would want American Jews to invest in to help his community, he was quick to answer: "A hippodrome," he said.
"A what?" I replied incredulously.
"A hippodrome," he repeated.
To my astonishment, he then detailed his plan for a horse-racing track, gambling, hotels and all the trappings to turn his beautiful corner of the Jezreel Valley into a summer stock, Hebrew-language version of "Guys and Dolls."
At the time, I scoffed at Atar's idea, but I shouldn't have. After years of promoting his "hippodrome," Atar, a Labor Party member, got his wish late last month when an Israeli Cabinet committee headed by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud approved the idea.
As we have recently seen here in Pennsylvania, where the state legislature finally voted last month to legalize slot machines, the lure of gambling revenue is virtually irresistible to politicians of all parties.
The rhetoric about the bright future of the Galilee once it is made safe for gambling coming from Atar could have easily been mistaken for the statements that issued from the mouths of Gov. Ed Rendell and the leaders of Pennsylvania's legislature about slot machines.
Opponents of these projects are derided for their lack of appreciation of the supposed benefits of gambling or, even worse, as moralists.
But just as the hidden societal costs of a vast expansion of legalized gambling will eventually have to be paid by the same Pennsylvania taxpayers that think they are getting a break, so too will the people of Israel pay for the realization of Atar's scheme in years to come.
Gambling is already prevalent in the Jewish state. While an off-shore private casino business that flourished in Eilat was recently shut down by authorities, the State of Israel already has its own thriving gambling business: the Mifal Hapayis the National Lottery.
According to a report issued by the country's Central Bureau of Statistics, Israelis spent more than 1.6 billion shekels last year on the lottery and the "Toto" soccer lottery. Indeed, a new version of its old "lotto" game netted Mifal Hapayis a record high in sales this year.
ON THE BACKS OF THE POOR
Can it be any surprise that just as more Israelis are starting to wonder about the increasing gap between the nation's rich and poor that lottery sales have gone up? As the country's economic distress continues, the marketing of pipe dreams of lotto wealth to the poor and middle classes, who are its primary audience, gets easier.
Is there anything more cynical than looking to balance a budget on the backs of those least able to afford it? The lottery and other forms of gambling are the most regressive forms of taxation imaginable, and are operated on a basis that would mark them as fraudulent bunko schemes were their proprietors anybody but the government.
One factor in the Gilboa scheme's favor is that, unlike the most recent experiment in the region with gambling, this one will presumably not be controlled by Yasser Arafat and his corrupt Palestinian Authority.
One of the prime benefits of the Oslo accords for Arafat was that it led to the opening of a casino in Jericho where Israelis and foreigners (though not Palestinians) donated millions to the old terrorist's foreign bank accounts and explosives acquisition fund. Unfortunately for Arafat, the casino was an early casualty of his war, and there is no prospect of its revival in sight.
But, just as Arafat's casino was built in partnership with Israelis with a dubious sense of ethics, the idea that the hippodrome will be off-limits to Israel's own rapidly expanding brand of organized crime is laughable.
And just as Pennsylvanians who bothered to notice were amazed to see that their legislature made it legal for their members to own a percentage of a slots parlor, it doesn't take much imagination to see even worse abuses happening in Israel. A labyrinth of regulations and corrupt party establishments have already undermined confidence in the integrity of the system there.
FALSE CLAIMS OF PROSPERITY
Those in the Gilboa region who think that the track will turn their area around economically would also do well to study the impact of gambling on those areas in the United States where similar claims were made. But by the time it is clear that the promises of prosperity were so much hot air, those who made them will likely no longer be in a position to be held accountable.
What business is this of ours?
Let's remember that Atar's hippodrome will be built on hundreds of acres owned by the Jewish National Fund and held in trust for the Jewish people.
As Gilboa resident Joe Yudin recently wrote in The Jerusalem Post, Atar and Netanyahu "want to take precious Jewish historical sites and turn them into a sort of Disneyland." As Yudin noted, the place where the prophet Elijah once did battle with pagan priests and where Saul, the first king of Israel, and his son Jonathan fell in battle with the Philistines will soon be obscured by "hotels, noise and traffic."
But even if that prospect doesn't bother you, there's also the affair of who pays for the impact of gambling on society in terms of crime, prostitution and an increase in those who are thrown upon the mercy of the state because they have become destitute.
This particular dividend of the "gaming" industry is little discussed when the politicians and their business partners talk about profits. But there is a wealth of data that already shows that whenever gambling is expanded, the victims of this supposedly "victimless" vice proliferate.
Those in the grips of gambling addiction, be they youngsters throwing away their lives or senior citizens losing their Social Security checks, will grow. So will the suffering of their families.
And that is where Diaspora philanthropy will come in, helping to pay for the social costs of this disaster. Costs, I might add, that will never be figured into the supposed gains that will be claimed by gambling's paid advocates.
Who will head off this looming disaster?
Just as in the United States, Israel has a bipartisan consensus of politicians and their business partners in favor of making it easier to fleece the citizenry.
In a country whose people are generally obsessed with not being considered freyers patsies it seems that Israelis are just as big a bunch of suckers as Americans.
Good luck to them. They're going to need it.
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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.
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