Too Wonderful to Grasp

How can a yeshiva student from Bnei Brak, who lives in poverty from hand-to-mouth and who has eight children, can pay NIS 360 for three small, round and rather burnt matzot mitzvah.

What's the price of one matza baked in Bnei Brak a few hours before the Passover seder? One friend whom I asked wagered NIS 10, while another thought he was exaggerating when he guessed NIS 30. They were nowhere near.

These are matzot mitzvah, which are baked from around noon on Passover eve until about one hour before the holiday begins. And why is it so important to eat them on the night of the seder? Because our forefathers who wandered through the desert did not prepare their matzot in advance but only on that same day, and so we follow in their footsteps.

The matzot mitzvah are made by hand from special flour. The process begins with mixing certain precise quantities of the flour with water to create a dough. The dough is then kneaded, rolled out and passed on to someone who inserts holes with a handheld press. The matza is then put into an extremely hot oven for 40 seconds - and you have a matzat mitzvah.

"How can you pay such a crazy price?" I ask one of the yeshiva students who is standing and sweating in the long line, and he replies that this is the ultimate matza, "and it's impossible to grasp something so wonderful."

That was why I listened to the Passover-eve interviews that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave to the media, thinking I would perhaps learn where the money for such matza comes from. But Netanyahu only explained that in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities one finds predominantly poor people, and that if you deduct these two groups from inequality indexes the level of poverty in Israel drops to a good place somewhere in the middle when compared with the rest of the world. These statements immediately drew fire and ridicule, but what can you do? - they are true. The Bank of Israel calculated that if the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs are taken out of the inequality equation, the rate of poverty per capita drops by almost half, from 24.4 percent to 12.7 percent.

But the important question is whether Netanyahu and his government have taken action to reduce poverty among the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities. Netanyahu says yes but the correct answer is no. Both the Haredim and the Arabs (and especially the Bedouin ) suffer from low levels of education, which makes it impossible for them to join the workforce and earn a decent living. And, since these populations have high birth rates, the gaps and the poverty will merely grow and the burden on the productive middle class will simply get heavier.

This is because Netanyahu has always submitted to the Haredim. In the coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, he agreed to raise child allowances and sanctioned a situation in which core subjects do not have to be studied in Shas' schools. And anyone who does not study mathematics and English cannot find lucrative work even if they want to. Only recently, Netanyahu consented to infuriating discrimination, agreeing that subsidized housing will be distributed according to the length of a couple's marriage - in other words, going mainly to the ultra-Orthodox, who generally marry very young - and this is clear encouragement for them not to work or serve in the army.

As for the Arabs, Netanyahu continued with his policy of discrimination in the way he allocated budgets for education. He is also continuing with his policy of not building industrial areas close to Arab towns and villages. Allowing foreign workers to come here has also had a detrimental effect mainly on Arab laborers.

Is it surprising, therefore, that most of the poverty is concentrated in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities? Moreover, a considerable amount of the inequality that exists in Israel can be attributed to large unions in the government monopolies, which have created a class of privileged workers who control their place of work, manage to get inflated wages and inalienable tenure for themselves. In these workplaces, nepotism is rampant and there is a lack of efficiency and a huge surplus of manpower. On the flip side one finds workers in private factories and other businesses who earn less and who do not have job security. What Netanyahu had to say about this was that the unions' control "is sometimes merciless" and that "their power must be moderated so that they will serve the public." These are big words, but nothing has come of them.

If this is the case, perhaps Netanyahu - during the year he still has in office - will deal with the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs and the big unions? I have serious doubts about that. So I shall make do for the time being with him solving the mystery of how a yeshiva student from Bnei Brak, who lives in poverty from hand-to-mouth and who has eight children, can pay NIS 360 for three small, round and rather burnt matzot mitzvah.

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