A Year On: Still Waiting for Social Justice

A year after the tents were first erected on Rothschild Boulevard and protesters took to the streets, has anything actually changed in Israel? Two members of the Trajtenberg Committee consider the state of affairs.

On July 14, 2011, Daphni Leef and some of her friends pitched the first tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, and the biggest civil protest in the country’s history was born. On September 26, 2011, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg submitted the recommendations of his committee on socioeconomic change to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Your work is a real message and revolution,” Netanyahu told Trajtenberg upon receiving the recommendations. From the moment these recommendations were first published, the protest activists viewed them skeptically.

The experience of the past year has not changed their opinion.

According to an initial examination by the Bank of Israel, 68 percent of the committee’s recommendations were adopted by the government. Any assessment regarding the success of their implementation, however, is far more elusive. One year after the protest first erupted, and nearly 10 months after the publication of the Trajtenberg Committee’s recommendations, committee member Esther Dominissini says: “It is clear there is not enough social justice yet, and there is not a correct distribution of resources with regard to all elements of society. Though no welfare state in the world has succeeded in eliminating poverty entirely, there is no doubt that Israel cannot allow itself such huge gaps.”

Until recently Dominissini was the director general of the National Insurance Institute, and she adds that the public “must continue to apply pressure in all possible channels for the change in priorities to be clear, so the change that the committee began will not stop.” She believes the struggle “must not break down and be forgotten. It is necessary to strengthen it all the time, to keep it in the public eye, until the state of Israel takes better care of its citizens’ welfare.”

Dominissini left the NII about four months ago, after four years as general director, and was appointed chair of the Hadassah Medical Organization. She was also once director general of the Employment Service. In her opinion, the achievements of last summer’s protest are considerable and it is a mistake to scorn them.
One can start with an analysis of the protest’s slogan, “The people demand social justice.” “There is something new in this slogan,” she says. “The people have expressed a demand and not just one sector or another. The meaning of social justice is for a larger share of the resources, alongside solidarity and values that haven’t been spoken about for a long time. After all, one of the reasons for the protest was the fact that people were getting rich here thanks to resources that belong to the public as a whole, and thanks to problematic taxation that mainly benefited the top deciles.

“The achievements by the fomenters of the protest will be esteemed not only many years hence,” she states. “Already, right now it is clear that they succeeded in changing public awareness and the discourse. Previously, the security discourse prevailed. Today there is already a different discourse, and the politicians know social issues will carry a lot of weight in their chances of getting elected to the next Knesset.

“The protest has also had a great influence on the business world,” she continues. “It used to be that the companies did whatever they wanted. Now they know there is someone checking up on their decisions. This knowledge has become part of their considerations concerning how to behave. Firms that didn’t listen to the public have paid a high price for this. When had a thing like that every happened before?”

A year ago, increasing the allowed government deficit was a taboo and a budgetary constraint that faced the Trajtenberg Committee. Netanyahu’s decision, about two weeks ago, to increase the deficit target to 3 percent of gross domestic profit shows that even a taboo is a relative concept.

“The budgetary constraints imposed on us were difficult, but it isn’t possible to dismiss our recommendations to transfer by means of internal diversion of resources about NIS 30 billion to the social services in the next five years,” says Dominissini. “There is also an explicit section in the report, which the protesters have to insist must be implemented, recommending an increase in the proportion of civic expenditure in the budget, after many years in which citizens have been getting less and less. This is an important statement and it’s a pity it wasn’t given a numeric value, which would have enabled the public to keep track of the government. The portion the social services receive in the 2013 budget will be an important test.”
In 2007, when he headed the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, Prof. Trajtenberg recommended the setting of a target: Increasing the income of families in the lowest fifth of the population by about 15 percent by the year 2010. In the report he submitted to Netanyahu, Trajtenberg made do with quite a general and vague statement to the effect that “the government should periodically set and revise social goals alongside traditional macroeconomic goals, including quantitative goals for increasing employment and reducing poverty and inequality.”
“When you don’t set clear targets, which necessitate an orderly work plan and the appropriate allocation of funds,” says Dominissini, “the aspiration to reduce poverty and inequality remains a slogan, just another line in a report.” Prof. Trajtenberg declined to be interviewed for this report.

Nevertheless, sources in the government say it is impossible to ignore the decisions that have been taken on the basis of the Trajtenberg recommendations. For example, free education for ages 3 and 4 and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar having his picture taken against the backdrop of new kindergartens being built. The sources therefore say it is “possible to look at the past months with satisfaction.” The Education Ministry estimates that 40,000 children of the appropriate age will start attending public kindergartens this coming year.

Even the fear of a shortage of kindergarten teachers has emerged as unfounded at least according to Education Ministry director general Dalit Stauber, who said recently that “all the doomsayers have been proven wrong.”

Bar-Ilan University’s Prof. Pnina Klein was one of the most forceful advocates on the Trajtenberg committee for strengthening early childhood education. According to her, the kindergarten construction which the Education Ministry is so proud of is only one chapter and not the most important one in the needed change.

“I am very pleased that it is possible to help parents on the economic side, and sending their child to a public kindergarten will now save them thousands of shekels,” she says. “But as an educator, I don’t see this aspect as sufficient. In addition I want to see an improvement in the quality of the education given in early childhood. The possibility of placing children in free frameworks cannot be enough,” adds the professor, who received the Israeli Prize for Education Research last year.

The basic Education Ministry standard, whereby each kindergarten teacher and one aide are responsible for a class of 30 to 35 children, has not changed. In less than two months, students currently taking preschool education courses will be teaching 3 and 4 year olds. Yet now they are waging a public struggle, demanding an increase in manpower in every kindergarten to a kindergarten teacher and two aides and to reduce significantly the number of children per class. They are basing their protest, in part, on Prof. Klein, who headed a committee several years ago that determined the number of children in a class of 3 and 4 year olds should not exceed 16. “I am very worried,” says Klein, “by the fact that kindergarten teachers and aides will be responsible for 30-35 3 year olds. Very young children have clear needs. It is necessary to respond to them, to teach them to develop curiosity and to regulate behavior. The pedagogical dimension is critical. Three year olds are still babies, and you can’t relate to them as kindergarteners. I am afraid that if there will be so many children, the educational staff will not be able to give the required emotional input, neither to the exceptional children nor to those in the normative range.

“There is a disturbing lack of clarity concerning the quality of care that the children will receive,” Prof. Klein continues. “We must make certain there is real supervision of the kindergartens, not just of the sort in which the inspector comes for a visit once in a blue moon, in honor of which they clean the kindergarten. This is not looking deeply enough.

“I am afraid we have not dealt with the root of the problem,” she says. “If there is no change in the quality of the care, we will be left with only the parents’ financial relief.

I would like to see the Education Ministry put more emphasis on what will be happening in the kindergartens emotionally and educationally. The quality of the education the children will receive has to be maintained, and perhaps it should be the top priority.”

The Education Ministry has refused to answer questions about any increase in the number of kindergarten inspectors, or how many kindergartens are currently supervised by each inspector. The ministry also refused to say whether approximately 250 private kindergartens where the state will subsidize the tuition fees in the context of the implementation of the law on free education for 3 and 4 year olds will be under state supervision. The ministry confined itself to saying: “The number of inspectors has increased in accordance with the addition of kindergartens.”  

Nir Keidar