Newspaper article International New York Times

Israel's Undeserving Poor

Newspaper article International New York Times

Israel's Undeserving Poor

Article excerpt

The high visibility of poor Haredis and Arabs influences the never-ending public debate about how to put an end to poverty.

In mid-December, a report by the National Insurance Institute and the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that Israel's poverty rate was shamefully high: 23.5 percent. It found that one-fifth of families -- and one-fifth of retirees -- in Israel are officially poor, as well as one-third of children.

Israel's income gap is one of the highest in the world (following Chile, Mexico, Turkey and the United States). Israel, as O.E.C.D. reports have already indicated more than once, somehow manages to be a "start-up nation," with high economic growth; yet, at the same time, it remains a backward nation with many extremely poor families.

The publication of the annual poverty report gave rise to two or three days of heated discussion. Aryeh Deri, the head of the Shas Party, called it a "poverty storm." Shas relies on lower-income religious voters, and the report was an opportunity for a politician to demonstrate his outrage. Yet the storm quickly abated.

Israelis already know the numbers, and most have already formed opinions on this topic. Many middle-class Israelis are convinced that the poor themselves are at fault -- and unless they do something about it, there's not much that the state can do for them.

Two segments of Israel's population stand out as the poorest of the poor: "ultra-Orthodox Jews" and "Muslim-Arabs." Unemployment rates for ultra-Orthodox Jews (mostly ultra-Orthodox men) and Arabs (mostly Arab women) are very high. So are birth rates. The result: 59 percent of the ultra-Orthodox (also known as Haredim) are poor. Similarly, 58 percent of Arab Israelis are poor. Other groups with notably high rates of poverty are the elderly and new immigrants -- but the numbers for these two groups are much lower, 23 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

Israel's poverty doesn't solely stem from the lack of full participation of these two groups in its economic life. But the high visibility among the poor Haredis and Arabs influences the never- ending public debate about how to put an end to poverty.

Kindling a sense of social solidarity among middle-class Israelis toward members of these groups is difficult for several reasons. First, the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs don't mix much with most Jewish Israelis (both these groups refrain from military or other national service). Second, to be blunt, Israelis know that Haredis and Arabs are disproportionately represented in the underground economy (namely, by evading taxes). Finally, to a large extent they are poor because of choices they make -- preferring their traditions over participating in the modern Israeli economy. Simply put: For Haredi Jewish men, the choice is generally to study the Torah and have many children (while the women have to provide for the families). …

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