ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Poverty in Israel

Poverty in Israel

10 November 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Israel’s ‘Poverty Festival’ usually lasts a full week.  Every November the Central Bureau of Statistics (and others) release figures pertaining to Israel’s economic plight. The newspapers howl, the ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ are interviewed day and night, the poor are brought in for special interviews and everyone condemns the finance minister and treasury officialdom.  This year the celebrations lasted less than a day, since the government collapsed and the press was no longer interested.  No one is promising to make this up next year with a two week extravaganza.

Since Israel’s rapid socialist decline set in during the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War the gap between rich and poor has grown as has the ‘poverty gap.’  The ideological ‘social justice’ as advocated by the Labor movement and its ideologues (AD Gordon, Ber Borochov, etc.) faded as did the dreams of its leadership (Ben Gurion in particular) for a truly socialist society.  This did not mean there would not be other issues, such as ethnicity, culture superiority or religious conflict.  But the Jewish state was expected to have as much economic equality between its citizens as possible.

Today poverty has spread and people remember the serious capitalization process of the 1990’s as a major turning point, especially when speaking of the high tech industrial basis established over the last decade.  Interestingly, the boom took place under the Rabin-Peres Labor government (1992 – 96).  By then the gaps between rich and poor had widened considerably.

Without getting into the specifics, Israel has major structural economic problems, similar to any socialist society trying to go capitalist.  The world high tech failure and the collapse of tourism as a result of Palestinian violence did not help.  Furthermore, because of sustained growth during much of the 1990’s monies were handed out to keep coalitions together, especially to the ultra-orthodox parties and the yeshiva population who grew to close to 40,000, neither participating in the economy nor serving in the army.  Many citizens (non-religious as well) went on welfare instead of taking low paying jobs and then seeking better employment.

Capitalism was in, but ‘socialism’ still existed.  It was not the socialism of sharing hard earned profits but a ‘socialism’ born of political necessity to gain votes or coalition agreements.  Both Labor and Likud were and are guilty of passing out these funds.  But all was fine as long as there was money.  But now the state is strapped for funds and tens of thousands who could have been employed are not, since those companies never took root, or did not expand, rather everyone who worked paid more taxes to support those who did not. 

The state can tax everyone further and reduce the amount of money in the hands of those who work and take initiative or it can cut benefits.  It is doing both.  Labor is making an issue out of settlements as opposed to development towns.  They have a point, but it is limited since the funding in question adds up to about 1% of the state budget.

Not so long ago too many people decided on poverty as a ‘way of life.’  Their political party or representatives would take care of them and they would live the lifestyle they preferred while supporting their leadership.  Many simply chose to be supposedly poor.  Others got by on non-reported, moon lighting jobs or forms of barter.

Today, many who always worked cannot find jobs and the economy continues to shrink.  The average person suffering from poverty is receiving some $230 a month, not including discounts for certain services and tax exemptions (especially property).  The UN defines poverty as one who earns $1 a day or less.

In a well publicized ‘massive’ demonstration by the poor in Tel Aviv, aided and organized by certain political groups a month ago, 2000 people showed up.  The Histadrut Labor Union cannot seem to mobilize more than a few hundred for a protest.  The press shows up in large number and even they are talking out loud having second thoughts.

It is said that by the end of 2002 there will be 1.3 million poor.  So where is the ‘social movement’?  Some say security issues are so overwhelming, the populace will not complain about poverty.  Others say those parties who made poverty an issue over the years, control and benefit from the phenomenon.

Let it be noted that those who made poverty an issue yet advocated against working or getting a technical education may very well lose support in the coming elections.  This means the ultra-orthodox parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism.  It will be interesting to see how the One People (labor union party) fares.

No doubt there is poverty in Israel and the socio-economic gap has greatly increased.  But not all economic ills are the faults of the capitalists.