Children With Swollen Bellies in East Jerusalem

Israeli official’s remark shows insensitivity and ignorance of 21st-century social policy.

The declaration by Social Affairs Ministry Director General Yossi Silman, according to which there is no hunger in Israel because kids aren’t wandering around with swollen bellies, was a pathetic statement that sets back welfare policy by decades.

In the not-so-distant past, social affairs ministers and their directors general battled finance ministers who sought to cut welfare benefits. Today, the director general puts himself on the line so that the finance minister can make additional cuts while at the same time demonstrating his ignorance of the fundamental principles of 21st-century social policy.

A state that sees no problem as long as there are no kids with hunger-swollen bellies is a backward state. Developed countries long ago adopted the view that the role of the state is to see to the welfare of its citizens, far beyond their mere physical sustenance. Access to proper nutrition, among other necessities, is a requirement for the healthy development of children and adults. Without them, the ability to feel safe, experience pleasure, and to learn, develop and live a full social, cultural and spiritual life is severely impaired. A state that values life is a state that invests in nurturing its human potential and social capital, one that does not abandon its inhabitants to a downward spiral into a humiliating and desperate struggle to survive.

If the director general were to tour Jerusalem, where his office is located, he would find quite a few hungry children. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 43 percent of the city’s Jewish children, including 63 percent of its ultra-Orthodox children, as well as 86 percent of its Palestinian children, are below the poverty line. True, these children don’t wander the streets with swollen bellies, but it doesn’t require in-depth study to recognize that with this kind of start in life their future options will gradually narrow. What will we tell the children of Jerusalem whose childhood – and future – is being stolen from them? That we exchanged their right to equal opportunity for an equal sharing of the national defense burden?

The poverty data for Jerusalem’s Jewish children, Haredim and non-Haredim alike, are deplorable and must be addressed immediately. But nothing compares to the horrific statistics for the capital’s Palestinian children. While the state statistics bureau’s numbers point to a moderate decline in poverty among the city’s Jewish children, including Haredim, in the past few years, in Palestinian East Jerusalem the poverty rate rose 10 percent in the past four years.

According to data from the Jerusalem municipality, 36 percent of children in the eastern part of the city do not complete 12 years of schooling; the dropout rate is five times the national rate. The only possible explanation is the fact that the state barely exists in East Jerusalem these days. Palestinian children meet the authorities primarily when they are pulled from their beds in the middle of the night and arrested on suspicion of throwing stones, allegations that often turn out to be false. Even if most are released after a few days without being charged, the emotional damage has already been done, joining a long list of injustices that make up their stolen childhood.

The Israeli-Palestinian talks have resumed, but under pressure from the Israeli government the issue of Jerusalem is being set aside, as usual, indefinitely. The ministers will continue to speak loftily about the united city and to delude the public into thinking a negotiated solution can be reached without a compromise in Jerusalem. At the same time, Israel will continue its policy of appropriating East Jerusalem while abandoning its residents.

If this continues it may not be long before Silman finally sees children with hunger-swollen bellies, at least in East Jerusalem.

The author is the executive director of Ir Amim, for an Equitable and Stable Jerusalem with an Agreed Political Future.