The Insidious Threats of Hunger and Poverty to Israel’s Future

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May 1, 2003
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By Peter Edelman

Security is the overriding concern in Israel today. Even if the recent reduction in suicide bomb-ings continues, the Second Intifada is far from over. People justifiably fear for the future, especially because the Israeli economy is now in crisis too, in part due to the violence.

Nonetheless, Israel’s future is clouded in other, less headline-grabbing ways. As my friend, the Israeli political scientist Yitzhak Galnoor puts it, “I’m confident there will be a government of Israel. I’m just not confident this will be the same Israel that our parents fought to create.”

The Israel of chalutzim and kibbutzim that I learned about in Talmud Torah and religious school has vanished. Israel is now five “nations” coexisting uneasily, and poorly sharing power and the economic pie. Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Russians, the ultra-Orthodox, and Israeli Arabs all come from different places – figuratively for sure and literally in most instances. It sometimes seems unrealistic to hope that these five distinct entities might successfully coalesce as a mature society. That the country remains as democratic as it does is amazing, but there are cracks and fissures – some gaping.

Researchers argue about whether Israel has the largest gap between rich and poor of any developed nation, or is only second or third, after the United States and maybe the United Kingdom. Arab citizens of Israel – more than a million people – have a per capita income that is half the national average. But they are not the only group on the margins. Recent immigrants are disproportionately poor, and too many among those who came from North Africa and western Asia 50 years ago have never been fully integrated economically, especially those living in the Negev.

Exacerbating both the group divisions and the economic gaps is the continuing domination by the Ashkenazim of the economic and cultural life of the country. Partly in response, many among the marginalized vote in ways that seem contrary to their interests. Rejecting the Ashkenazi-dominated parties of the left, they keep choosing people who, in office, ignore them – proof yet again that the psychology of group identity can be a more powerful political motivator than economic self-interest.

The combination of the Intifada, the conservative government it caused to be elected, the battered economy, and the budget cuts that ensued have made matters far worse. Unemployment is well over 10 percent. Benefits have been reduced rather than improved. Child poverty has skyrocketed and is now more than 25 percent. Serious hunger – never a widely noted concern despite the poverty of some groups all along – is now visible and the subject of public discussion.

Attitudes about minority groups – in particular, Arab citizens – are intertwined with the poverty issues. Arab Israeli unemployment is 40 percent, and the poverty rate is even higher. This poverty is entrenched from generation to generation because of discrimination in multiple realms, especially discrimination in spending on education, which leaves Arab children with far less than half the spending per child than is available to Jewish children.

The reasons for taking action on poverty are the same everywhere – it is a moral question as well as, more instrumentally, a question about social stability and the future of the democracy. The kinds of disparities that exist in both Israel and the United States (where, for example, African-Americans and Latinos are poor at three times the rate for whites, and Native American poverty is even higher) call into question the claim of both societies that equality is a fundamental principle and, if they persist, can threaten the continuing capacity of the economy to generate enough income to sustain a broad middle class. Any hope of knitting together the five highly disparate groups that constitute today’s Israel depends at least in part on ensuring all an equal stake in the country’s economy and social/civic structure (and on progress toward a more open society, religiously, as well).

But the disparities faced by Arab Israelis raise further, even deeper questions, especially now. Fulfilling the promise of equality for all citizens should be enough of a reason to end the discrimination and the disparities. Now, however, there is an additional urgency. The grim joke among Arab Israelis is that the Jewish democratic state is “democratic” for the Jews and “Jewish” for the Arabs. Political equality – the right to vote – means very little if one is consigned to be a member of a permanent minority that not only loses nearly every vote but also is the object of a continuing pattern of governmental decisions that discriminate spectacularly again and again. Sooner or later, people are going to refuse to take it any more. That day will not be a good day for Israel.

If Israel wants to remain a democracy, it must act. The current position is untenable. Either social, political, and economic conditions will be made better, or they will deteriorate. That is the current reality.

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Peter Edelman, a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, is President of the New Israel Fund.

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