Israel Spending Less and Less on Its Citizens

The time has come for the Knesset expand its narrow, inhumane definition of a dignified existence, and thereby restrain the government's irresponsibility.

The headline seemed like a reflection of the wretched, miserable reality: An old-age home in Bnei Brak had gone up in flames. The fire, which started due to what turned out to be criminal negligence, was the fault of the institution's directors, who were operating it without a license and with a forged safety certificate.

This description may seem detached from the experience of the wealthy people who inhabit the upper deciles. Bnei Brak is a poor ultra-Orthodox city, and the people involved were helpless, poor, old people. Such a thing would never happen to us, say the banks' investment directors and the corporate marketing directors and the high-tech professionals.

They are wrong. Some people still believe that society's "weak" members are those who did not try hard enough, or were not born smart enough, or are just losers who at most have to be given an occasional hot meal as a "contribution to the community." But these people don't understand that they are living in a country that has abandoned the most basic principle that makes a society out of a chaotic jungle: the right to live a dignified life. This abandonment has pulled the safety net out from under everyone's feet - even those who are well-off today.

That is because, as the not-so-young mother of one of my friends says, everyone who is born also dies. But on the way he or she also grows old, and living with dignity in old age requires quite an investment.

Life expectancy in Israel is constantly on the rise, but the bad news, released this week by the Bank of Israel, is that government outlays on caring for the elderly are among the lowest in the West, while private outlays for this purpose are relatively high compared to other countries. Put simply, the state is spending less and less, while the individual - who is already collapsing under the burden of the mortgage, education, health, food, fuel, electricity and what not - is paying more.

In light of the accelerated aging of the population, it's clear that the price people pay out of their own pocket will only grow. Already, cuts in per diem funding for residents of chronic-care facilities for the aged have opened a dangerous gap between the real cost of care and what these institutions receive from the government. And that is not to mention the scandalous cost of "prestigious" (or more accurately, just plain expensive ) nursing homes, which only very well-heeled families can afford to pay out of their own pockets.

What will happen if this trend continues? Either everyone will have to work much harder, at the expense of being able to have a reasonable quality of life, or in the worst case, he will simply go bankrupt. Clearly, if so, he too will be a weak, needy and helpless oldster, contrary to the expectations voiced above. In short, he'll be the type of person that he currently thinks only lives in old-age homes in Bnei Brak that burn down.

In light of this suffocating reality, we have no choice but to cling to the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty like drowning people grasp at a straw (that is, assuming we are not prepared to accept charity as the only solution ). Liberals see the expression "human dignity" as a sweeping term that (with difficulty ) encompasses various aspects of the principle of equality, by virtue of a person's right to self-actualization and the autonomy of the individual will. But what about the right to a dignified existence?

"Human dignity," ruled then-Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, "is an overarching right from which many rights can be derived." He himself derived several rulings from it that stretched the interpretation of "human dignity" to the maximum, because he was convinced there was no need for a constitutional expansion of social rights. But even Barak presumably understands by now that since Israeli politicians have chosen to position the country to the right of the United States, while completely ignoring the complexity of the population and the heavy outlays on security, the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers, they haves left every citizen to his own devices - and therefore, the right to a dignified existence must be legislated.

Two retired Supreme Court justices, Dalia Dorner and Dorit Beinisch, demanded that the state expand its narrow, inhumane definition of a dignified existence. The time has come for the Knesset do so as well, and thereby restrain the government's irresponsibility. Otherwise, Israel's elderly will have neither dignity nor liberty. And if they don't have it, neither will those who come after them.