Impoverished and Unloved

There are two groups in Israel that seem to be quite different from one another but in fact are quite similar. According to Bank of Israel figures, 47 percent of the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are poor and 47.6 of the Arabs ("the non-Jews") are poor.

There are two groups in Israel that seem to be quite different from one another but in fact are quite similar. The beginning of the resemblance - even the identity - between them is statistical, as emerges from figures that the Bank of Israel published last week: 47 percent of the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are poor; 47.6 of the Arabs ("the non-Jews") are poor. There are no other groups in Israel in which the percentage of poor people is as high as in these two groups - not the inhabitants of the development towns, not the residents of the poor neighborhoods, not the Mizrahis (Jews with origins in the Muslim countries) not the new immigrants, not the single mothers and not the elderly. But the resemblance between the two groups is not confined only to the poverty rate.

These are two sectors of the population that are excluded from the public discourse and, most astonishingly, are not even present in the discourse on poverty. The poor families that are shown in the media on the days when the poverty index is published are, in general, Jewish Israeli non-ultra-Orthodox families that live in the development towns - or new immigrants. How many reports have been broadcast or published about an ultra-Orthodox or Arab family? When locales suffering from poverty are filmed, they usually show Hatzor or Yeruham - not Bnei Brak and Kseifeh, even though poverty rates are higher in the latter two places.

Thus more than 1.5 million citizens are living on the margins of society; not only is their economic and social distress met with public indifference, but these two groups are the targets of the greatest amount of hostility from the majority, to the point of being shunned. It is still possible to explain the hostility directed at the Arabs in the context of the national conflict here, but it is far more difficult to understand the roots of the loathing of the ultra-Orthodox. The fact that a considerable number of them have decided not to work, a fact that undoubtedly contributes significantly to their economic distress, still does not explain the very aggressive epithets that certain groups, which see themselves as enlightened, choose to use in describing them - e.g., "parasites," "extortionists," "bloodsuckers." These are expressions that it might be possible to understand if the "extortion" were successful and the ultra-Orthodox had become wealthy without working - but not when they remain so poor.

To date the Jewish settlers in the territories have extorted huge budgets from the state and have never encountered the attitude that is reserved for the ultra-Orthodox. Thus the poorest sectors of society are also the most hated by many of its members.

The dimensions of the poverty among the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox have never succeeded in arousing pity or affection for them, like the sympathy that is sometimes aroused by other weak groups - such as the inhabitants of development towns or single mothers. Who has ever taken part in a campaign to collect donations for poor Arabs or ultra-Orthodox Jews? When has there been a day of special broadcasts from Umm al Fahm or from Mea She'arim, like the ones from Sderot or Kiryat Shmona?

The ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs are the most visible examples of the "other" in Israeli society. Therefore they are also the main victims of the racism that has spread in this society. They do not dress the way we do and they do not communicate with one another in our language. Closed in their ghettos, they lead a different way of life: they have families with many children, independent educational systems and different newspapers. These are the main reasons they are shunned.

Their "otherness" of course reaches its apex in their absence from the most formative Israeli experience - service in the Israel Defense Forces. This is the main claim in the dismissive attitude towards them. The fact that the decision not to conscript them is a government decision (and as far as this is concerned it makes no difference that the ultra-Orthodox do not want to be conscripted) has not influenced the denigrators. Anyone who doesn't serve in the IDF is not entitled to anything. It doesn't matter that in truly enlightened societies the protection of rights is not predicated on the fulfillment of obligations; in which case rights would be denied old people, sick people and children. You haven't manned the roadblocks? You haven't bombarded residential neighborhoods? You haven't demolished houses? You will always remain inferior.

Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews often arouse strong reactions: It is not only difficult to be an Arab in Tel Aviv; an ultra-Orthodox person is also liable to encounter hurtful racist remarks. Not only Arabs have a hard time renting an apartment in a Jewish neighborhood; it is also difficult for ultra-Orthodox Jews in secular neighborhoods. A few years ago, when members of the Lubavitch hasidic group rented an apartment in Ramat Aviv, the guardians of morality in the neighborhood hastened to distribute flyers warning of the danger inherent in those people who wear black, who dared to invade territory that is not their own. In this liberal neighborhood an Arab will enconter a better welcome than an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

The shared fate of these two groups has never given rise to any real cooperation between them. The differences between them and the rooted prejudices overshadow what they have in common. This is regrettable. If the poor of our country were to cooperate among themselves, they would be able to achieve more and also to make a contribution, immeasurably more important than service in the IDF, toward understanding between the two peoples. Hadash MK Ahmed Tibi and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, UTJ MK Avraham Ravitz and United Arab List MK Abdelmalik Dehamshe have a lot more in common than it seems: They have a common enemy - the poverty of the public they represent and the prejudice that is directed at them.