Is it possible that Bar Refaeli was investigated on the assumption that she was guilty until proven innocent?
“Supermodel Bar Refaeli, and her mom detained in Israel for allegedly evading taxes on millions of dollars’ worth of income – Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli was detained and grilled after a home raid Wednesday for allegedly lying about where she lived to avoid paying taxes on millions of dollars’ worth of income… She’s further suspected of accepting free perks to the tune of “over a million shekels” — or more than $256,000 — in the form of luxury apartments registered in her mother and brother’s names, as well as a Range Rover and a Lexus, Israel’s Tax Authority said in a statement.” [NY Daily News]
It is too early to know if there is a substance behind the headlines. However, assuming that the Israeli tax authority has proofs, there is a cultural difference on how tax evasion is perceived by Israelis compared to Americans. There are things that are unique to the Israeli society which makes Refaeli also a victim of the system not just a tax evader, if found guilty.
I never met Bar Refaeli. I don’t know anyone who knows her. I pay my taxes in full, and I dislike the fact that rich and famous people such as her are taking advantage of their status and money to pay lower tax rates than regular people like me. However, this doesn’t mean that because she is rich and famous she is automatically guilty.
Initially, I was critical of her fictitious marriage when she was eighteen. She did it to avoid the mandatory military service and advance her modeling career. However, over the years I changed my mind: Bar is a good ambassador for Israel; a country which desperately needs positive public relations. When I compare her potential contribution as an unmotivated secretary in the Israeli army with her actual contribution as a supermodel, an international celebrity who speaks regularly on behalf of Israel, I tend to think that in the end it was a better arrangement for her and for the State of Israel.
To explain why I’m not upset with her in light of the tax evasion allegation, I have to go back 30 years, to the first time I filed my taxes in America. It was my first job in America. I barely earned any money. Upon completing the annual tax from, I found out that I paid too much taxes that year. I mailed in the form, happy that I don’t have to send the government more money. I hoped that this was the end of it. I couldn’t believe my eyes when few weeks later I received a check from the government for the overpaid amount. I was surprised to learn that my tax submission was approved without a question. I had hard time believing that the government actually sent me a refund. This scenario was unlikely in Israel of the 1980s. At that time, the tax collection systems in Israel and America were the complete opposite of each other. If the US tax system was based on “innocent until proven guilty”, the system in Israel was based on “guilty until proven innocent”. I don’t know how it is today. I’m not sure if in the eyes of the tax collectors, Bar is presumed guilty or innocent.
Bar Refaeli may be caught in Israel’s campaign on corruption and forced to pay a heavier price than the norm because of her status as an international celebrity: The Israeli society is waging a war against corruption by people in powerful positions. A recent examples include Ehud Olmart, the Israeli prime minister who was forced to resign and is sent to prison for accepting bribes. Top police commanders are now being forced out of service on charges of sexual harassment.
Even if she is guilty of tax evasion, Bar Refaeli is not the only celebrity in Israel who was investigated for tax and other financial evasive maneuvers. It happens regularly: Several famous singers were caught recently cheating on their taxes. They paid there taxes and penalties, and continued with their lives. Their popularity was not affected by it, nor their regular appearances on TV. It was not held against them by their fans. Bar Refaeli shouldn’t be treated any differently just because she is richer and more famous. If she is not, it won’t be because the Israelis hate her. It will be because someone in the government wants to make an example out of her.
An example of the Israelis ability to forgive is well illustrated in the example of Aryeh Deri , the present Israeli economy minister who returned to the government after spending time in prison for accepting bribes. Something that I can’t see any American politician on a national level able to accomplish.
The attitude toward regulations of any kind is different in Israel than in America: One of the first things a new immigrant learns when he arrives in Israel is the term “Frayer”. It means “sucker” in the sense that somebody is a sucker if he goes along with the rules when nobody else is following them. It came from Russian, specifically from the language of Russian thieves. In Israeli life and society, the worst thing anybody can ever be is a frayer, and most people will do anything and everything they can at all times to avoid being a frayer. The only way to be certain at any given moment that you are not a frayer is to make somebody else a frayer. [quora.com] But sucker is just not strong enough word. A “frayer” is an individual who was not tricked yet allowed others to get ahead at their expense…From newspapers to radio and TV broadcasts, “frayer” stories are dominating the second-tier category. If the first few things you read or hear about are the latest headlines in the security and political arenas, the next will be the social justice stories. [jpost.com]. If someone is not paying his taxes in full while you do, then you might be considered a frayer and he is probably not. Is it possible that paying taxes, when Bar had a way of not doing that, was her version of not being a frayer?
[I’m a frayer: I could have avoided paying the 18% VAT tax imposed on Israelis, if I rented a car the last time I was in Israel on the name of a person who is not Israeli and traveled with me. However, I’ve been living in America for too long. I fully embrace the American attitude toward taxes ; the honor system, so I paid about $200 more in taxes for renting the car on my name as the primary driver. ]
I have a theory about why the honor system does not work in Israel. I attribute it to the way the State of Israel was founded:
The Ottoman Empire ruled the country until 1917. Local government officials were corrupted. Bribe was common and many times the only way to get anything done. The early Jewish settlers in Israel learned very quickly that in a corrupt system, not telling the truth is more effective than the other way around. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in WWI, the British Empire ruled the area. The small Jewish community fought an underground war to free the country. It smuggled many holocaust survivors into the country under the nose of the occupying British army. During this period, lying to government officials was routine and necessary. The early Jewish settlers in Israel came from Russia and eastern Europe. Places where Jews were often discriminated against and had to pay more than their fair share of taxes. Lying to government officials was a matter of survival.
I’m pretty sure that when the State of Israel was founded in 1948 the British tax collection system was adapted. A system which was initially imposed by an occupying force on a rebelling population. It didn’t help the young country that large immigration waves came from communist countries and other parts of the world where survival was dependent on lying to the government. Eventually, a system of distrust between tax collectors and regular citizens took hold. In such an environment a game of “cat and mouse” became part of the culture. The government imposes laws and the citizens look for creative ways to go around unpopular regulations.
When I think about Bar Refaeli and the tax evasion allegations, I keep in mind all of the above.