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Merciful Jews head the National Insurance Institute. Lo and behold, without hesitation or review, they rolled up their sleeves and set out to rescue the poor. As though the NIS 6.5 million which the minister of labor and social affairs delivers to the relief shelters that crop up each day was not enough, the NII has now volunteered NIS 20 million a year. Twenty million shekels, no less.

One might hazard, cynically, words of praise for the NII, and its marvelous prophetic forecasting powers. Though the soup kitchens themselves insist that they will not need assistance, financial or otherwise, from the state, the NII experts anticipate otherwise, holding that the facilities will need more and more aid. The number of poor and homeless who are on the brink of starvation will only go up, they believe. Hence, the soup kitchens will undoubtedly need more money - there's nothing to argue about.

Maybe the state should also provide a budget to pharmacy owners so that they distribute cheap drugs to those whose health plans do not include the relevant prescriptions. Maybe teachers should also offer private classes to the poor. This could be the start of a huge, new enterprise - state-supported charity. The NII, whose name could be converted from "national insurance" to "national recovery," would allocate a regular budget to some contractor, who would confer cash on people who stand with cap in hand at traffic junctions; generous sums could be given to hotels that take in the homeless, and so on.

These precious, unnecessarily allocated NIS 20 million belong to an NII "special projects fund," whose purpose is to develop special community services and improve the quality of life among the weak socio-economic sectors.

The fund's goals include, for example, the reduction of unemployment, work with youth at risk, treatment for violent men, and empowerment of women in the Arab sector. Even if these aims were not to be achieved fully, all of these lofty goals represent the antithesis of private associations which feed the hungry.

Empowerment means providing assistance to women, helping them attain the education and training they need to lift their families out of the poverty cycle. The empowerment of women, and also programs for youth at risk and other projects, are part of a comprehensive approach whose aim is to provide individuals the tools they need to rise beyond circumstances of weakness and dependency, and become citizens who have equal rights and responsibilities, and are full partners in their community's life.

This comprehensive approach is intrinsic to the NII's work. Virtually by definition, the NII is supposed to provide a universal network of social services to each citizen. These are not donations or charity; instead they are a natural payback for the continuing investment made by each citizen. However, in Israel, a country which barely started to set up a social welfare state in the 1970s, governments have done their utmost to topple the NII. Rather than allowing the social insurance welfare network to take root as a symbol of civil stability, the governments have deserted this web and today the NII is barely able to cope with the destructive public relations campaign being waged against it by some partisan political forces.

While stop-gap payments have become a degrading replacement for economic policy, and while the government has converted the NII into an expedient instrument for reducing social gaps in elections seasons rather than in investing in education and reducing unemployment via systematic policies, the number of poor has kept on increasing, and the state coffers have grown lean.

In a desperate, irresponsible attempt to confront increased social distress, the government and the NII have hastily privatized social welfare services. The state, these policy-makers explain, will waste fewer funds under this privatized system: the private associations will provide services, and the government will monitor and supervise their work. In other words, public policy will remain the state's domain, as is the norm in enlightened countries.

In actual fact, the associations have turned into flourishing businesses which pay hefty salaries to director generals, and the state has handed them millions of shekels annually without exercising any supervision. Despite the huge damage caused by this specious "efficiency" policy, magical privatization is being touted as the exclusive answer to problems in education and health. The culture of poverty is flourishing; alongside it grows a new-old culture which hearkens back to the Jewish experience prior to the days of state sovereignty: mercy and charity.

So long as these twin cultures of poverty and charity remained confined to the holy community of Bnei Brak, they could be tolerated as a nostalgic throwback. Yet they long ago moved to new areas, beyond the ultra-Orthodox sector. Given the absolute collapse of public policy, even the most well-intentioned, modest associations have mutated as instruments used to expand the culture of want and dependency, and to exempt the state of responsibility toward its citizens.

How simple it is for Labor and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri to deliver NIS 20 million to relief shelters just a month before national elections! Several new soup kitchens opened two weeks ago with festive ceremonies. They were opened by none other than dedicated social welfare workers, and also senior ministers. From Shas, of course.