Pre-Passover food distribution in Haifa on March 2, 2012.
Pre-Passover food distribution in Haifa on March 2, 2012. Photo by Elad Gershgorn / Yedioth Ahronoth
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The pre-Passover ritual of distributing food to the poor was disrupted this week by Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon's attack on the charities that hand out the food, sparking a heated debate about the role of Israel's nonprofit sector.

"I oppose this method of throwing boxes at people, taking pictures of them, getting them to stand in line, and soliciting donations at the expense of these unfortunate people," Kahlon told Army Radio Monday. "Stop standing them in line at 5 and calling in TV crews. You want to give? Give secretly."

Kahlon also criticized charity officials for what he said were their high salaries, and said the government must take action to make these charities superfluous by next year.

"The directors of the nonprofits are bringing in a salary of tens of thousands of shekels [a month] at the expense of the poor," said Kahlon. "We must act so that by next year these nonprofits will be unnecessary."

The salaries of the employees of Israel's three largest food distribution charities - Latet, Pitchon Lev and Leket Israel - range from NIS 7,000 for a full-time activity coordinator to NIS 26,000 for an executive director. But such groups tend to have few salaried workers and rely largely on volunteers.

Kahlon made the comments as part of a debate with charity group officials who took issue with his statement Sunday that their food handouts infringe on the dignity of the poor.

Eran Weintrob, the executive director of Latet, said the only reason his charity hands out food is because the government isn't taking care of the poor.

"In Israel there are dozens of nonprofits that have been operating for 15 years in the field, not in the Likud Central Committee," he said, taking a jab at Kahlon's party affiliation.

"The only reason Latet distributes food is the fact that the government isn't doing anything about it and is abandoning children at risk, Holocaust survivors and families with limited resources who desperately need help," said Weintrob. "If the social affairs minister is interested in doing, not just talking, then Latet, whose supreme objective is to cease to exist, commits to shutting down its food distribution activities as soon as the Social Affairs Ministry takes responsibility for the matter."

Latet expects to have distributed NIS 5 million worth of food packages, through 150 smaller charities it works with, by the end of Passover.

Pitchon Lev is distributing 10,000 food packages over the holiday and the Leket Israel food bank is distributing more than 7,000 packages and about 700 tons of food through organizations that give it directly to the poor. The 700 tons of food will be going to an estimated 50,000 people.

Speaking to Haaretz, Kahlon's comments sounded more nuanced. He advocates issuing vouchers redeemable at supermarkets, enabling recipients to choose their own food and not have to fight over boxes being handed out. This year, for the first time, the Social Affairs Ministry distributed supermarket debit cards worth NIS 400 each to 31,000 families, in conjunction with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

While acknowledging that this may not be the best approach in some cases - such as children or elderly people with little interest in preparing their own food - Kahlon said his ministry would work with organizations interested in distributing supermarket vouchers rather than food.

A recent poll by Yedid, a social advocacy group that seeks to help Israelis become self-sufficient, found that nearly all needy Israelis - a staggering 94 percent - would prefer supermarket coupons or debit cards over receiving food packages.

Five percent of the 540 respondents said they would want to go to the food distribution charities to get the packages, and just 1 percent said they would want to eat in a soup kitchen.

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