Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Israel in Nepal, Dan Gilbert's Detroit & Bar Mitzvahs for Disabled Teens: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

As a parent, I find myself often telling my children that their benevolence will reap rewards. When they act in caring and helpful ways, especially for those in need, they will feel good about what they have done and others will appreciate it too. Sadly, we know this is not always the case. Beneficial actions can be met with outright hostility and trying to explain that sad fact to our children is difficult.

Three recent events are textbook examples of the well-known aphorism "No good deed goes unpunished." Each of these good deeds was muddled by political issues leading to criticism when praise was the more appropriate response. Consider these three cases and how the disapproval was misplaced.

Immediately following the April earthquake in Nepal, Israel acted quickly in sending a contingent of doctors and search-and-rescue specialists to the region. Israel is often one of the first nations to dispatch aid to disaster affected areas around the globe. While Israel’s response team in particular and Israel’s government in general weren’t looking for praise in response to their volunteerism, they weren’t expecting the harsh, undeserved criticism levied on them throughout social media.

One might think that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refused to send aid to Nepal after reading the ruthless attacks from around the world. Rather than commending this small nation for sending over 260 doctors, nurses and other highly skilled rescue personnel to Kathmandu, dissenters took to Facebook and Twitter to claim this was just a charade to try to deflect attention from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

While it came as no surprise that some of Israel’s harshest critics would continue to condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, the bizarre connection made to its generous aid to the people of Nepal was unethical. Israel’s disaster relief work in Nepal has nothing to do with a nuanced situation back home. Perhaps the worst offender was the director of Human Rights Watch, who tweeted, “Easier to address a far-away humanitarian disaster than the nearby one of Israel’s making in Gaza. End the blockade!” I’m quite certain the suffering people of Nepal, who endured another disastrous earthquake yesterday morning, gladly accepted Israel’s assistance without using it as an opportunity to rebuke Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. I would think that an organization like Human Rights Watch would applaud the efforts of one nation to come to the rescue of another in the interest of human rights. I guess politics sometimes clouds better judgment leading to Israel’s good deed going punished.

In another classic case of doing the right thing only to be chastised is the story of Dan Gilbert, a billionaire businessman who was raised in Detroit and is now using his business savvy to turn this beleaguered city around. As a fellow Detroiter, I’ve been watching Gilbert’s actions closely and cheering for him to succeed. Previous tycoons have tried to create a renaissance in the Motor City in the decades following the race riots of the late 1960s, but no one has succeeded yet. Gilbert, with his real estate spending spree and ability to bring big corporations into Detroit, has made significant progress.

Last week he announced a major investment in a historic Detroit neighborhood that would remove the blight and create new luxury condominiums so people can begin to return to the area. His commitment to the city is unshakable and, as a wise businessman, he is entitled to make a profit on his investments.

Gilbert’s companies have brought thousands of employees to the Downtown Detroit area and many of them have taken advantage of subsidies to buy or rent homes close by. He has invested around $2 billion into Detroit real estate and initiatives including buying up over 70 buildings – part of that investment has gone toward technology startups and incubators turning some of the Motor City into Tech Town. One would think that his loyalty to forging a true and lasting revitalization in Detroit would be cause for unanimous praise of Gilbert’s efforts.

Peter Moskowitz, of New York who is writing a book about gentrification, sees things differently. From hundreds of miles away from Detroit, Moskowitz penned a disparaging op-ed on accusing Gilbert (and fellow Detroit tycoon Mike Ilitch) of ruining Detroit through gentrification. “How Two Billionaires Are Remaking Detroit in Their Flawed Image” has already been shared over 200,000 times no doubt giving the opposite impression of how Detroiters feel about Gilbert’s wager on Detroit’s revitalization.

Moskowitz condemns Detroit’s mayor and Michigan’s governor for becoming enamored with Gilbert and Ilitch and “painting them as philanthropists on a mission to rescue Detroit.” Well, both of these men are philanthropists and have bestowed millions of their hard-earned fortunes on the city. They are also savvy businessmen who seek to make wise investments and can’t be blamed for seeking to buy up real estate in this troubled city at bargain prices.

Instead of joining the chorus made up of appreciative Detroiters like myself, Moskowitz (and others like him) have chosen to point out the negatives. Instead of focusing on the booming restaurant and retail business that Gilbert has energized, these detractors cite the other areas of Detroit that remain desolate because of fires, floods and foreclosures. No one said Detroit’s decades long decline was going to be turned around in one year.

These naysayers can continue to write about the doom and gloom of Detroit, calling Gilbert and Ilitch “moneyed barons who can afford to buy up Detroit without regard for the people who made the Motor City what it is,” or they can choose to see the silver linings of the new Detroit renaissance. I’m opting to heap praise on Gilbert for seeing a bright future for our city and using his fortune to invest in hope and opportunity.

The third example of no good deed going unpunished is in Israel where the Conservative movement of Judaism there has been arranging bar mitzvah ceremonies for disabled teens for decades. Known as the Masorti Movement, the association of Conservative Jewish congregations in Israel, has been waging a legal and public relations battle for equal treatment by the Orthodox establishment since its founding. While Israel is considered a Jewish nation, it has a long standing tradition of intolerance for non-Orthodox lifestyles and viewpoints.

Some Orthodox rabbis in Israel have taken a hard line approach by refusing to allow mentally disabled teenagers to have bar and bat mitzvahs (Jewish coming of age ceremonies). These rabbis see the disabled teenagers as being unfit to accept the onus of the Jewish commandments that are undertaken upon reaching the age of adulthood according to Jewish Law. The Masorti Movement has historically taken a less strict position on this issue and has thus created meaningful ritual ceremonies to accommodate these teens with disabilities so they can celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah. This program has become more popular over the years and an increasing number of Orthodox teens with disabilities have taken advantage of it.

While conventional wisdom would dictate the Masorti Movement should be commended for its outreach to the disabled and for investing necessary funding in this important endeavor, that hasn’t been the case. This bar mitzvah program for disabled teens has been in the news recently for the wrong reason. Rahamim Malul, a former lawmaker for the Orthodox Shas party and current mayor of the Tel Aviv suburb of Rehovot, refused to allow the bar mitzvah of a disabled teen last month because the venue was the city’s Masorti synagogue.

“To slam a door on a Jewish teen at the moment they are about to enter the fellowship of the Jewish People is terrible; to do so to a young person with disabilities is unforgivable,” Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, wrote in a statement. He said the mayor was using children as pawns in a political game directed against the Masorti Movement.

When we see people doing just and praiseworthy acts we should honor them for their efforts. If we stand idly by and watch as the cynics work to find the negatives in positive situations, we are doing a disservice to society. We do not want people to become weary of offering support because they are concerned of the negative repercussions. I pray for the day when the aphorism “No good deed goes unpunished” is erased from our vocabulary. Good deeds should be praised and we should silence those who try to turn positive situations into negatives.

Originally published in the Huffington Post

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