Poverty made the headlines once again this week, and justifiably so. It turns out that 2009 was not a good year with regard to the number of poor people. After a few years of stability, the proportion of poor families increased to 20.5 percent, up from 19.9 percent in 2008. And it does not look as if anyone at the top is planning to do anything about it.
The National Insurance Institute's report reveals that poverty grew mainly among two sectors - Arabs and Haredim (ultra-Orthodox ). The poverty rate for Arab families rose to 53.3 percent, and for Haredi families, it was even higher: 56.9 percent.
If so, who is to blame for the poverty? Is it Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who as finance minister cut welfare allowances in 2003? Is it Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is giving money to yeshiva students? Or perhaps it is the Haredim and Arabs themselves?
Don't be silly. The guilty party is obvious: David Ben-Gurion. That is what the finance minister told the Sderot Conference for Society this week, without blushing.
"This was one of Ben-Gurion's historic mistakes: He exempted the Haredim and Arabs from military service in the early 1950s," Steinitz said. And since they were exempt from the army, they also did not join the work force, and have therefore remained poor to this day. It is amazing how history can be distorted.
The real story is that in the first years after the state's establishment, the rabbis asked Ben-Gurion to exempt yeshiva students from military service so they could devote all their time to studying Torah and become successors to the Torah sages who were exterminated during the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt 400 students. That was all.
But then the 1977 "upheaval" that brought Likud to power took place, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin succumbed to pressure from his coalition partners and agreed to remove the 400-student ceiling. Ever since, anyone who enters a yeshiva has been exempt from serving in the Israel Defense Forces, without any numerical limit. That is how the number of brilliant Torah students rose from 400 to tens of thousands.
But Steinitz, being a Likud member, does not dare to criticize Begin. So as far as he is concerned, Ben-Gurion is to blame.
Steinitz considers the Haredim his political allies, and therefore does not dare to tell them the truth: that when 65 percent of Haredi men opt not to work, but at the same time bring eight children into the world, they deliberately condemn their families to poverty. Therefore, this is "poverty of choice" and should be treated differently.
The Arab poverty rate raises a different issue: the reliability of the figures. That is because neither the National Insurance Institute, the tax authorities nor the Central Bureau of Statistics knows what is really happening in the Arab sector. They do not go out into the field in this sector and are not capable of measuring the extent of the black-market economy. Therefore, the claim that more than half of Arab families live in poverty sounds incredible.
Steinitz supports a Greater Jerusalem under Israeli rule, but the official statistics (to the extent that they are worth anything ) show that East Jerusalem Arabs are the poorest population in Israel: Fully 71 percent (! ) of families live below the poverty line. If so, perhaps it would be worth dividing Jerusalem to reduce the poverty rate?
In 2003, Netanyahu began really dealing with the poverty issue by moving from government handouts to encouraging people to go to work. He cut income support payments and child allowances, reduced income tax and even introduced the "Wisconsin" welfare-to-work plan to deal with the chronically unemployed.
But when he rose to power in 2009, Netanyahu broke the rules that he himself had set and once again began increasing child allowances, giving much more money to yeshivas and raising stipends for yeshiva students; he also failed to prevent the Wisconsin plan's dismantlement. That is how encouraging work turned into encouraging indolence. So is it any surprise that there is more and more poverty?
Everyone agrees that without studying mathematics, English and history, a person does not have a chance of finding lucrative work in the modern economy.
But the Netanyahu-Steinitz government increased funding for the independent school systems run by the two Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, even though they are not prepared to teach these core subjects. In this way, the government is cultivating and increasing poverty such that it will continue to grow in the future as well.
But what does all that matter? The main thing is that the guilty party has been found: Ben-Gurion.
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