Penury and Hunger in Israel

May 1, 2003
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By Jenny Cohen-Khallas

Here is an example of the new Israeli pov-erty. When Israelis see people like this, they say: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Marina and Yvgeny came to Israel from Riga, Latvia, in about 1994 with two adolescent children, as did Ethiopian Abonash, with her three children. Abonash’s husband died of dysentery on the long march to the Jewish Agency camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I also want to introduce to you Masha, a doctor who couldn’t retrain in Israel, so she became an attendant paramedic in a tour company. Yvgeny retrained and became a computer Webmaster, joining a successful software start-up company. Abonash worked as a room cleaner in a newly opened five-star hotel.

In 2000 they were all fired because their respective employment situations went bankrupt or were closed at a huge loss. They have mortgages or rent to pay and loans to repay for their children’s upkeep and higher education fees. For six months, their severance pay and unemployment benefits supported them. But, now at age 50, they are unemployable. Some sold their cars, CD players, televisions. Then they took a bridge loan. Then the children started working full time to stay in university. Then they tried to sell the house, but there’s a slump in the market and nothing is selling. Then they stopped buying meat during the week. Their credit is stopped, interest payments swell; suddenly there’s no food on the table and no money for medicine.

And yet the open use of the words “poverty” and “hunger” arouses waves of discomfort and sometimes indignation in Israel. Some Israelis are shamed by it. Some say that we must lobby the government to change its priorities. Some say that poverty and hunger don’t exist - that it’s just the exploitation of long-term welfare dependents and the unemployed. But some say that it not only exists but also threatens to overwhelm us. They note that the government is overburdened with defense expenses and we, the citizens of Israel, cannot stand by and blame everybody else.

Israel is no longer the single-faceted ideological society it was in the 1950s when the dire poverty of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees living in asbestos shacks on severe rationing was called, not “poverty and hunger,” but “national frugality.” Israel is now a postmodern (for a large proportion of its population), Western, industrialized, high-tech state. Israelis no longer share the mentality of struggling for initial economic survival. Israel is now strong enough to enable healthy public discussion of social and other issues. So the fact that one-sixth of the population is defined as impoverished is a shocking reality both to those who thought we lived in a comfortable Western, middle-class milieu and to those whose ideological priorities had never allowed them to consider how the socioeconomic strain of widespread poverty would detour public efforts, solidarity, and electoral tendencies from the national struggle. One of the clear results of daily prime-time media exposure to poverty and demonstrations in front of the Knesset is that vociferous segments of the public are demanding that governmental resources be channeled to welfare and other domestic resources, rather than to strengthening settlements beyond the green line. In the recent national elections, the Shinui Party quadrupled its size, demonstrating the public’s desire to fund civil needs such as welfare, employment, and education, instead of settlements and ultra-religious ventures.

Soup kitchens have mushroomed as the situation in Israel gets worse. While some blame the Intifada for the poverty, the underlying causes may be more complicated. Israel was a world leader in the high-tech bubble. For 10 years a large percentage of the Israeli work scene was devoted to training, offering employment in, and proliferating high-tech services and environments. The bubble burst, and thousands became unemployed. Older workers could not find alternative employment.

In addition, the wave of immigration that boosted Israel’s population by over 20 percent in the early 1990s brought an abnormal, negative socioeconomic balance, the impact of which the government had not foreseen. The immigration brought a disproportionate percentage of old and unhealthy people without families, a disproportionate percentage of single mothers, and a roller coaster of drop-out immigrant adolescents who felt alienated from their Israeli peer group and uncomfortable in their parental homes. There were whole communities of families from the Asiatic ex-Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Yemen, Syria, and Kurdistan who were unfamiliar with Western, democratic society.

This is how we arrived at 1,000,000 people under the poverty line - one-sixth of Israel’s population, Jews and Arabs included, 400,000 children included. In nearly every school, teachers know who comes to school without a sandwich because he or she forgot it and who cuts back on the sandwich and doesn’t eat until the evening because the family exists in penury. The overloaded social workers are helpless and refer the impoverished to nonprofit soup kitchens and associations that distribute food, clothing, household goods, and school books to the needy. When, in August 2002, Minister of Education Limor Livnat approached the Pitchon Lev Association to help address the problem of hunger in schools, the organization was accused of serving politicians and allowing the government to shirk its welfare responsibilities. But the dimension of poverty today is so great that the government is incapable of coping; social welfare organizations today are essential if Israel is to keep feeding the hungry.

Like other welfare organizations, the demands for services have grown. When Pitchon Lev started operating in 1998, it provided 300 food parcels a month, in addition to blankets and heaters to old people. It now provides 5,500 food parcels a month to over 140,000 needy individuals a year. There is a waiting list of 1,000 families. The needy are referred by social workers and include people from all backgrounds. Rather than providing meals in soup kitchens, Pitchon-Lev delivers weekly parcels of food for the family - enabling the family to prepare its own meals at home and maintain its dignity and independence. Food is also provided to certain welfare institutions such as Beit Hashanti and shelters for battered women and children.

Many people-to-people Israeli welfare associations wrestle with whether to directly address social need or to work toward governmental intervention. In addition to weekly news programs emphasizing the plight of the poor, the work of nonprofit associations, and dwindling governmental resources for welfare, there have been numerous discussions among charity foundations and the nonprofit sector as to who will deal with the hunger crisis.

The tremendous growth of organizations that provide hands-on solutions to various aspects of poverty and hunger indicates the enormous increase in numbers of families whose material support systems have totally collapsed, including the governmentally funded welfare services that are colossally over-stretched. It is also increasingly clear that the crisis is going to get worse in the next few years. Until the current conflict with the Palestinians is resolved, Israel will not enjoy the confidence of tourists, investors, or developers. Resources will not be made available to develop new employment fields or attend adequately to the fallout of thousands of alienated and asocialized immigrants. International embargoes, both overt and unspoken, will not be rescinded until the regional conflict is solved.

Increased citizen involvement and a more attuned media are addressing the poverty crisis. As a result, one of the main banners of the recent elections was the claim of parties - not known for their social agenda - that they would invest immediately in new sources of employment in poor areas, in reducing governmental waste, and in solving the problem of hunger.

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Jenny Cohen-Khallas came to Israel in 1975 from the United Kingdom at the age of 22. She has an M.A. in Jewish Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary and has done post-graduate studies at Hebrew University. She has four children (two currently in the Israeli army) and lives in Jerusalem. For the past 28 years she has been active in community welfare work.

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