Toward True Social Justice

The concentrations of wealth, barriers to workforce participation, monopolies and exploitation that characterize the economy hurt most Israeli families.

Irit Rosenblum
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Irit Rosenblum

The social protest movement reflects Israel's social tragedy, at the heart of which is its distorted system of government, one that sacrifices the prosperity of working families for narrow coalition interests, perpetuating an economy designed to serve the rich and the ultra-Orthodox.

How did the beauty and power of the social protest movement, in which an entire nation took to the streets last summer, dissolve into such terrible frustration that people have literally burned themselves to death? Perhaps the answer lies in the Netanyahu government's willingness to pacify its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners with policies that favor the least productive constituency at the expense of working families.

On March 13, 2012, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz approved the affordable-housing criteria tailored by Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, of Shas. Despite the government's declared commitment to fiscal responsibility (this, even though it has the most bloated cabinet in Israel's history ), in order to keep the coalition intact, it approved criteria that fail to consider whether affordable housing candidates actually live up to their earning potential.

Defying all economic logic, the government made duration of the candidates' marriage the most significant eligibility criterion. Such a system blatantly discriminates against those who can't marry in Israel or have chosen to boycott the rabbinic system of marriage on principle. These include hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have no registered religion or are prohibited on religious grounds from marrying here; non-Orthodox Jews, common-law, same-sex and interfaith couples; and other citizens.

Atias' proposal allocates 20 percent of affordable housing in each government tender to individuals over the age of 35 and childless couples, and 35 percent to families with one or two children, whereas 45 percent is reserved for families with three or more children. Preference within each category is determined according to a point system. Discharged soldiers receive 30 points, reservists get five points, and women who served in the army or did national service get 10 points (despite the huge and many disparities between military and national service).

Yet, the most important factor is marriage duration, with seven points awarded for every year, up to 10 years of marriage - up to a maximum total of 70 points.

These criteria apply to people seeking rental apartments subsidized through the Housing Ministry's affordable housing program, which are price-controlled for 10 years, and also housing purchasing through tenders which require that families earn less than NIS 19,000, double the average national monthly salary.

The marriage duration criterion clearly benefits Haredim. The figures speak for themselves as, according to a report in Globes, 93 percent of ultra-Orthodox aged 25-29 are married, compared with 47 percent of the overall Jewish population. By the time the typical secular Jewish couple marries, the average ultra-Orthodox couple has been married for six years and has three or more children, decisively tilting the eligibility calculation in their favor. Ultra-Orthodox families will always benefit in this system, since 62.4 percent of them have three or more children, compared with 36.8 percent of all Jewish families.

The estimated 90,000 Israeli couples that made a principled choice to live as common-law partners will never be eligible for affordable housing in this system, since they are not officially married. Neither will several hundred thousand Jews who insist on marrying with a non-Orthodox rabbi, as well as gay couples, interfaith families, "religion-less" people or those who can't marry in Israel at all. What kind of justice is that?

What is conspicuously absent among the housing criteria is an employment requirement. The Trajtenberg Committee recommended and the Netanyahu government favored 125 percent employment per couple as a threshold criterion for affordable housing. Incredibly, this most economically sound criterion was abandoned in favor of marriage duration to appease Shas.

The government would be advised to respond to public demands to divide society's responsibilities and rewards more evenly. Yet, nothing much has changed since adoption of many of the Trajtenberg recommendations. Promises to put more housing on the market have so far gone unfulfilled. Instead of mortgage conditions being eased, interest rates have soared. VAT and income taxes have risen, while corporate taxes remain unchanged. And tax revenues aren't being used for things long mandated by court order, such as a long school day, hot lunches, and recognition of child care as tax-deductible expenses.

The flip side of pandering politically to the Haredi population is sustaining a distorted economy designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many. Even the most superficial analysis reveals that the concentrations of wealth, barriers to workforce participation, monopolies and exploitation that characterize the country's economy hurt most Israeli families. But economic justice is attainable only if society provides every individual with an equal right to work and to accumulate wealth. This requires that the government regulate the free market.

The best way to achieve social justice is to enact economic policies that help families across religious, ethnic and geographic boundaries prosper. While Israel's social-welfare policy is strong, especially in comparison to the United States, which is too often emulated for the wrong reasons, it must be improved to help families compete in the workforce.

Such policies would include implementation of the 2008 Tel Aviv District Court ruling - affirmed by the High Court of Justice in 2009 over state objections - recognizing child care as a tax-deductible expense, subsidizing child care and after-school care, extending the school day, and encouraging employers to provide child care in or near the work place.

Without government intervention, Israel's 90 percent is powerless against the 10 percent that controls the country's financial establishment. Israel's merchants, its workers, teachers, soldiers and nearly everyone joined the struggle for social justice, in body or in spirit. Accountability, however insufficient was demanded from tycoons. An undeniable shift occurred. The people spoke out. Now the government must respond with fair economic policies that allow all Israeli families to prosper.

Irit Rosenblum is founder and executive director of the New Family Organization.