Guilty Until Proven Innocent: The Arduous Quest for State Benefits in Israel

Tamir Hajaj, a long-time Likud voter, led a two-and-a-half-day march to Jerusalem in protest of the government's arbitrary attitude toward Israelis in need.

Earlier this month, after Moshe Silman set himself on fire, the Social Affairs Ministry set up a hotline. So far it's fielded about 2,500 calls. With the help of the National Insurance Institute, Israel's social-security bureau, the hotline team examines "extreme cases" and is supposed to cut through red tape. Many of the calls have to do with housing.

"Instead of being angry at the policy-makers ... many people are taking their anger out on the welfare institutions and the NII," says Stav Shaffir of the social protest movement. "This is dangerous because it seems [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu would be happy to harm the welfare system."

A week ago Akiva Mafa'i, a handicapped army veteran of 45, set himself on fire at a bus stop in Yehud. According to his brother, Mafa'i had told their sister: "You saw what happened to Silman - that's what will happen to me."

In the afternoon that day, Silman was buried in Holon. At the funeral, Rabbi Idit Lev said Silman had provided "a terrible picture of how poverty looks in Israel. The poor person is ashamed and humiliated, faces inconceivable bureaucratic hurdles, and in the end receives aid that doesn't let him live and doesn't let him die."

When callers to the hotline threaten to harm themselves, social workers are sent out to help them. Hila, a social worker in the south, has dealt with three such cases.

"They send us out to help people who are threatening to kill themselves, with no tools to let us change their situation. Apart from trying to calm down the caller - who is living in severe economic distress, who has no money to buy medication or who is waiting for public housing - there isn't much I can do," she says.

"I tell them we can help but they have to apply to the NII and the Housing Ministry. This only makes them angrier."

According to Hila, the Social Affairs Ministry told her to "go see what's happening" with a person who called the hotline.

"What are we going to do with him after this visit?" she asks. "I'll report to the Social Affairs Ministry and NII that he's suffering from economic distress and will sit at home and think something's going to happen. But nothing will change. After all, the criteria and the policy haven't changed."

The Social Affairs Ministry, for its part, says the hotline "has been established to prevent people from doing something extreme to themselves and their families. The social workers' role is to help people in distress, to guide them and refer them to the proper places. The social workers are doing excellent work in dealing with the calls."

Living in a park

Earlier this month, after a two-and-a-half-day march from Kfar Sava, Tamir Hajaj arrived at the Prime Minister's Residence. Hajaj once owned a concrete-facings company that employed about 40 people. Today he owes around NIS 4 million, mainly to banks and suppliers.

He's not allowed to have a bank account. His driver's license has not been renewed. In recent months he has been living in a park near the Kfar Sava city hall, which has forbidden him to pitch a tent.

"When I was earning tens of thousands of shekels a month, the state benefited from my taxes," he says. "When I got in trouble, sometimes because of my own mistakes, the state disappeared. I'm not exceptional, just as Moshe Silman wasn't an isolated case. Enough with playing down the phenomenon. I'm just a living example of someone who's already dead."

In last summer's protest, Hajaj discovered he wasn't alone - that single mothers, the disabled, the unemployed and the elderly couldn't exist on state support. "I'd like to see a single MK who could manage with NIS 1,500 from the NII. Or even NIS 2,300. They spend these sums in one day," he says.

After Silman immolated himself two weeks ago at a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Hajaj decided to tell Netanyahu personally about the despair. He plans to make demands: accelerated construction of public housing via the money from selling apartments in recent years (a trivial sum, about NIS 2.7 billion ), and re-examining the criteria for receiving NII allotments and rent subsidies from the Housing Ministry. The person responsible for the tougher criteria set in 2003 is Netanyahu, who was finance minister.

A few months ago Hajaj and other activists marched from Bat Yam to Jerusalem under the slogan "The March of the Likud Disappointed." He has always voted for Likud. "They say the social protest is only for leftists? Look at me," he says. "I want to convince anyone who plans to vote for Likud to look at his bank account and that of his parents. I've woken up."

Hajaj intends to move on to Kfar Sava for another attempt at pitching a protest tent there. If necessary, he'll start a hunger strike, he says.

Hajaj puts down his small backpack and Israeli flag and sits down next to the tent camp set up by activists of Ethiopian origin protesting racism.

A few months ago Hajaj asked the Housing Ministry for help with rent. In the absence of public housing - an intentional absence - the rent subsidy has become the government's main tool.

"At the Housing Ministry they said I'm not entitled to aid because I'm not receiving guaranteed income from the NII. At the NII they said I'm not entitled to an allotment because according to their records I have a car, so they sent me to the License Bureau," says Hajaj.

"I have no idea what car they're talking about because it's been a long time since I've had one, but I had no choice and went to the bureau - and there they confirmed I don't have a car. They sent me back to the NII, which insists I have a car. This nightmare is impossible to escape."

In recent weeks the anger against the NII has been burgeoning, mainly because of the innumerable forms and approvals everyone needs. Even the state comptroller has commented on this.

Bad attitude from above

According to social workers, it might not just be a matter of bad bureaucracy.

"The starting point for many officials is that an applicant for an allotment is first suspect of trying to manipulate and steal from the public coffers," says one social worker. "You're suspect until your entitlement is proven beyond a doubt."

The NII, incidentally, doesn't have precise data on cheating. The estimates talk about billions of shekels, but they're based on estimates made in other countries.

"The lack of trust and the suspicion at the NII is another aspect of the drying out of the safety-net system - together with the inadequate allotments, the hassle, and the severe shortage of pubic housing," says Avigail Hatzor-Sivan, a social worker and an activist at Atideinu, a social workers' movement.

According Atideinu's Inbal Hermoni, "The moment the prevailing view is seeing parasites, it doesn't make a difference if there's more money to give. The policy is to grant as few allotments as possible and set the ones that are given at a level that doesn't allow a dignified existence."

Netanyahu, by the way, declared in 2004 that "governments have created a culture of poverty by handing out allotments generously. There is only one way to stop poverty, and that's to go out and work."

"The NII is waging a war of attrition against the people who apply to it," adds Maya Haskel, a social worker. "Anyone who insists on getting his rights, has support from family and friends and knows how to contact nonprofits that will help him will eventually obtain allotments. But many people just don't have the strength, and there's no one to help them. They simply give up in despair. From the state's perspective, it's fine to leave them by the wayside."

The dramatic cuts in NII allotments that Netanyahu led in 2003, along with the tougher criteria for getting them, are still having an effect. The rate of applications accepted is declining. According to the NII, in 2000, before the cuts, 76.8 percent of applications for guaranteed income were approved, compared with 69.1 percent in 2005 and 62.8 percent in 2011. In 2000, 47.1 percent of applications for a disability allotment were accepted compared with 34.4 percent in 2005 and 31.2 percent in 2011.

The NII medical appeals committees hear plenty of frustration. The committees consist of three senior doctors, chosen from a list drawn up by the Health Ministry. NII people say that while they pay the doctors' salaries, they don't intervene in the committees' work.

"There really is no pressure from the NII with respect to setting disability percentages. The problem is something else: The disability allotments are miserable," says a doctor who has been sitting on such committees for years.

"A full allotment amounts to about NIS 2,100 a month, and not everyone is granted that. These are allotments that, just barely, prevent you from dying of hunger."

And there's another problem, for which the doctor says the NII is fully responsible: Every applicant gets only 20 minutes for doctors to read his file, interview the applicant and make a decision.

"NII employees accept or reject citizens' applications for allotments based on the regulations and in accordance with the laws. The scope for judgment in such decisions is narrow and restricted by law," the NII says.

"The extent of the NII's work must also be remembered. The national call center alone receives about 300,000 calls a month and about 4 million a year. The total number of applications to the NII through the call centers, branches around the country, mail and Internet is about 15 million. Despite these figures and complex work processes, we are consistently reducing the bureaucratic burden."