Analysis / The Poverty Makers Complain of the Poor

Shlomo Benizri had prepared well for his annual big show. At 11 A.M., he convened a special news conference that was broadcast live on radio. The public heard the courageous minister issue a serious warning to the irresponsible government.

Shlomo Benizri had prepared well for his annual big show. At 11 A.M., he convened a special news conference that was broadcast live on radio.

The public heard the courageous minister issue a serious warning to the irresponsible government - one that is creating budgets that are increasing the number of families living below the poverty line and widening the gap between the rich and poor.

The minister, however, had a little problem. The poverty report refers to 2001, and the deterioration was not sufficiently dramatic.

So, Benizri asked the National Insurance Institute to carry out a theoretical calculation with regard to 2002, so he could impress the public with a far more frightening picture.

After all, this year, we are dealing with sharp cuts in the NII benefit payments, a drop in the real wage, and a rise in unemployment. Whoever heard Benizri could not have believed he is the labor and social affairs minister.

He hoped we would overlook the fact that he and his Shas party have been in government for many years, and that the socially-oriented portfolios, including the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, are always in their caring hands.

Moreover, Benizri has been the minister responsible for job creation and eradicating poverty for two years already - and he and his party voted in favor of the 2001 and 2002 budgets. In less than two months' time, they will vote in favor of the 2003 budget too. So who, exactly, is he griping about?

In a normal country he would have convened a news conference yesterday and made the following announcement: "It has come to my attention that despite my efforts, the dimension of poverty in Israel have grown during the two years in which I have been the minister in charge. As a result, I am submitting my resignation from the cabinet and the Knesset. I am also taking the opportunity to return the new Volvo that cost NIS 200,000 and that I received just last week. It is clear to me that it sets a bad example, increasing the anger, gaps, alienation and disgust felt by society's poor and weak, who see cabinet ministers continuing to enjoy the perks of power as if nothing has happened, as if we are not eroding both their wages and their allowances."

But instead of this honest speech, Benizri chose to harshly criticize the government and that anonymous labor and social affairs minister who is responsible for the situation (could it be Shimon Peres perhaps?). At the same time, he forgot to explain why the highest poverty rates are to be found in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

And because he forgot, it would be a good idea for us to deputize for him and explain: "The ideology of Benizri and his spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is the principal reason for the deepening poverty in Israel. They are the ones who are educating their flock not to work, but rather to live a scant life of poverty at the expense of the public."

As a result, two out of every three ultra-Orthodox men of working age do not work. Benizri and Yosef urge them to go to yeshivas and kollels and to live there at the public expense. And, most importantly, they urge them to make as many babies as possible, because this is a religious commandment - and the public will pay for it.

But no matter how much the public increases its payments, it will do no good. That is because the number of parasitic students has increased markedly, and the number of children per family is also rising, reaching up to nine children per family on average. And so self-inflicted poverty is also blossoming.

But if one of them wants to get out and find some productive job - to work, and earn, and break out of the poverty cycle, he simply cannot.

Why? Because Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani, the Shas education system, has taught him nothing but Talmud and Gemara. He knows no mathematics, no English, no geography, no science, no computer skills. He has no chance at all of breaking into the job market and finding a good position and a good salary. He has simply not been trained to do so - and its intentional.

This ideology creates a community of imprisoned constituents. After all, the poor by choice know that without the lobbying of Benizri and his Knesset colleagues, they would not get the ever-increasing allowances, grants, reductions, concessions and exemptions that still barely allow them to live.

As a result, they have to vote for Benizri and his party, so that their power in the Knesset is guaranteed, and their places in government are eternal.

It is true that in the past decade, the allowances have grown each year by leaps and bounds, and so it was in 2001 as well. Nevertheless, the number in poverty has also risen consistently.

This process is not unique to the ultra-Orthodox sector - there are the Bedouin and other groups too. Over the years, it has become more and more worthwhile to become a recipient of income allowances rather than actually working.

Those who have been "fortunate enough" to become a part of the group of income-assured recipients also enjoy numerous reductions in housing, transport and kindergartens - but the moment one of them goes out to work, all the reductions and benefits disappear and instead, he pays taxes and National Insurance in full. So, he loses far more than he gains.

The result? Today, the percentage of us who are a part of the work force is the lowest of all Western countries; the taxes we pay are the highest; and the poverty among us is the most shameful.