How we spend our money shows what we think is important. In the past few years, the U.S. government has struggled to pass a budget, but some fiscal decisions are easier to make than others. With the support of Congress, the Administration has discussed expanding U.S. funds to Israel to further expand Israel’s already excessive military edge. While Israel is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, policymakers have failed to make progress on a more pressing fiscal issue that directly affects U.S. citizens: the debt crisis in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s expansive debt has crippled its economy and forced many citizens to leave the island territory.
What does it say about our country that efforts to bolster Israel’s military receive high praise, while Congressional efforts to offer financial support for Puerto Rico continue to stall? While these two issues are wholly separate in both their justifications and mechanisms for receiving U.S. support, juxtaposing these two cases reveals misplaced priorities in the American agenda relevant to people of faith.
After receiving a widely-supported letter from the U.S. Senate, the Administration has stated that it aims to enhance Israel’s annual $3 billion military aid package to nearly $4 billion. Since Israel became a nation in 1946, U.S. military aid to Israel has exceeded $130 billion, which is nearly half of all military aid sent to the Middle East in that same time period. With such sustained support, Israel clearly meets any arbitrary threshold for defense, making an increase in Israel’s superlative aid excessive and irresponsible.
Israel has proved its military independence in defense expenditures and by its arms manufacturing industry that exports to 130 countries, including the U.S. and U.K. Israel’s arms trade is problematic in itself since many of Israel’s arms exports contribute to conflicts in places such as the Ivory Coast and South Sudan. The question of military support for Israel consequently goes beyond a matter of fiscal responsibility to one of moral responsibility. Does Israel need our support? Does it even deserve it?
The Puerto Rico’s debt crisis poses another moral problem, though one exacerbated by U.S. inaction rather than direct financial endorsement. The Puerto Rican government is currently $72 billion in debt and has a $2 billion debt payment to make by June 1. In addition to irresponsible governing, Puerto Rico’s special designation as a U.S. territory helped create the current crisis. Puerto Rican statehood is debated even among its citizens, but without many state protections, financial loopholes enabled large corporations and hedge funds to lend money to the Puerto Rican government at irresistible rates. In the wake of aggressive lending and borrowing, Puerto Rico’s debt ballooned out of control.
The Puerto Rican government and several members of Congress have pushed legislation to help lessen the impact of Puerto Rico’s debt on its struggling population. The proposed aid to Puerto Rico is frequently couched as a bailout, but unlike financial assistance to Israel, the current debate is not about distributing U.S. taxpayer money. Rather, the current legislation has the modest goal of providing debt relief to Puerto Rico by granting it municipal bankruptcy protection, a privilege held by all U.S. states but not the Puerto Rican territory.
Bankruptcy protection would restructure debt payments to ensure the well-being of the 3.5 million Puerto Rican people, about 45% of whom live in poverty because of this financial crisis. Without this protection, Puerto Rico could be required to further defund essential emergency services and continue to raise taxes in order to meet payment deadlines. Sales taxes in Puerto Rico already sit at a soaring 11.5% and thousands have left the island to escape an economy that leaves many overqualified and unsupported. Efforts to pass helpful legislation to aid Puerto Rico continue to falter, begging the question: Do we have our priorities right?
While military aid to Israel uses taxpayer money to further equip the most militarized nation in the Middle East, debt relief to Puerto Rico addresses the immediate need of struggling U.S. taxpayers. Too frequently it seems our fiscal sense is disconnected from common sense. Our country was founded on the self-evident truths that everyone is created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. In a world filled with money and potential profit, however, these rights often become mere footnotes in discussions about dividends and economic growth. U.S. arms manufacturers receive good business from Israel because of military aid, while Puerto Rico doesn’t seem to have much to offer.
As Brethren, we tout our tagline “Peacefully, Simply, Together” but often forget its implications. We are called to be peaceful, acting from a place of love and support. We are called to live simply, to walk with God rather than join the rat race. Finally, we are called together to be strengthened as a community of faith. These three pillars rest on the recognition that every person is a precious creation made in the image of God. This belief undergirds our work through Global Mission and Service and within our own communities. It is a foundation for witness that gives us a prophetic voice.
Recalling that our political system is founded on the equal rights of everyone to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must use our prophetic voice to remind those with power that such rights cannot be ignored, that each person has inherent value deeper and more beautiful than market value, that military excess works against the pursuit of peace and simplicity. Our elected officials must be reminded that they serve the People, especially the citizens of Puerto Rico.
Today, the Office of Public Witness joined several other faith-based organizations in denouncing U.S. military aid and arms trade in the Middle East, including Israel. The Office also works with Jubilee USA, an organization focused on providing debt relief. Check out their website for more information about Puerto Rico and how you can get involved.
In Christ’s Peace,
Peacebuilding and Policy Associate
Office of Public Witness