Opinion |

The Israeli Government Likes Childbirth, Not Children

Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar
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File photo: A new mother with her baby at Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, May 2018.
File photo: A new mother with her baby at Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, May 2018.Credit: Emil Salman
Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar

I rushed into the welfare office at 8:07 A.M., gasping for breath. I inserted my card in the machine, knowing this delay would cost me dearly. My team manager made a face: “This is the second time you’re late this week, Rivka. Social workers on my team get here on time.” I tried to explain that my husband was away doing reserve duty and I was alone at home with our two small girls. “Reserve duty again?” she complained, as I dove into the pile of orange files on my desk.

When I read Ronny Linder’s article (October 12, Hebrew Haaretz) about the struggles faced by parents who are on the medical staff at hospitals, I shuddered at the recollection of that frantic time, even though it was over a decade ago. True, it’s far from exact to compare the mad juggling between work, school and kids when your partner disappears for a least a month every year for reserve duty and what doctor-parents have to cope with during a lockdown in a pandemic. But these different experiences have something very much in common. There’s a vast chasm between the state’s demands for total selflessness and dedication – in reserve duty, working in hospitals in normal times as well as times of crisis – and parents’ ability to meet these demands.

The school system isn’t adapted to parents’ intensive work schedules (and certainly not to reserve military duty), even in normal times. During lockdowns, this problem is exacerbated many times over: What are people supposed to do with their children, especially, say, if both parents are doctors? Bring them to work? Even those who in normal times rely on support networks of family or paid childcare are falling apart – everyone is in lockdown, and who wants to risk infection by bringing a babysitter into their home during the pandemic?

The government’s response is to simply ignore the issue. When my overtime hours (which I was unable to work) were cut as a local authority employee whose husband was away on reserve duty, I wondered aloud, “What more will you ask from us?” When parents who work as doctors or nurses or in other essential (and non-essential) jobs are forced to be late for work or to request vacation days, they are treated with scorn, with no consideration for their predicament.

The contract between the government and the citizens is continually broken in normal times too, but now during the pandemic, this breach of contract is especially costly and infuriating. A country cannot survive without its soldiers and its medical personnel, or without all of its other workers. Normally, there is already a huge disparity in Israel between the number of vacation days children get and the number parents get. And now that disparity has become incalculable.

There is a feminist aspect to this whole story, too, of course. To our great shame, in Israel of 2020, women still earn less than men on average. The social expectation is that women will be the ones to stay home when a child is sick in normal times, and when children have no school to go to because of the coronavirus. Women continue to bear the brunt of the professional damage due to the loss of these work days. They end up being passed over for promotions and pay a very high price for this state of affairs.

To those who say, “It’s a free choice to have children. Deal with the consequences,” I reply: Children are the future generation for all of us, not just their parents. Just look at countries with negative population growth and see what lengths they’re ready to go to in order to change this. In fact, Israel has a clear policy of promoting childbearing, offering subsidized fertility treatments, child stipends, maternity allowances, maternity leave and more. But the conditions that follow make it clear that it’s the birth rate and not the children themselves that the state cares about.

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