Israel's Poor Won't Always Turn the Other Cheek

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Some 1,755,000 Israelis are living in poverty.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Knesset marked the Fight Against Poverty Day on Wednesday. This served as another painful reminder of the government’s neglect of 1,755,000 people living in poverty and of the disregard for the recommendations of the Elalouf Committee on Reducing Poverty, submitted a few months ago. This would have been the perfect opportunity to bring up yet again the recently released gloomy UNICEF report, which showed that Israel now ranks fourth among developed nations in the incidence of child poverty.

That report and the day devoted to the fight to reduce poverty serve as “moments of grace” for the situation in Israel. They provide headlines and allow a glimpse into the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens for whom talk of true competition and “good” versus “bad” capitalism is quite irrelevant. Channel 1 television aired a particularly grim testimonial on Friday night, showing a girl who has been working as a cleaner since the age of 12 in order to provide for her family.

The media like showing us poverty in small concentrated doses, in single installments. The images bombard viewers, shocking them for a brief moment, before moving on to the next item or, alternatively, to a bombardment of advertisements, before returning to “real things.” Indeed, the ruling authorities have always preferred escapism, illusion and diversion. A sick, hungry and exhausted body that suggests abject misery stands in the way of the “vision of perfection” that the rich and powerful want to project. That is why they shut their eyes and refuse to face the hunger. They eschew physical proximity to the destitute and refuse to take responsibility for the monster they’ve created, skipping with shameful lightness over the swamp of poverty and destitution.

In “the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” where we sought “to be a free nation in our land,” as the words of the national anthem declare, one third of children go hungry. However, the leaders of Zion cannot even find the time to discuss their plight, let alone deal with it. They are too busy rehabilitating their political brand in their struggle to ensure their place in the next government, draining us and each other in a “who blinks first” contest, and who can deliver shiny but useless trappings to their disappointed supporters.

The leaders of this government have not known a single day of want or distress. Those few in the corridors of power who are familiar with the back alleys of Israeli society were dispatched by their cynical patrons on low-priority missions that were doomed to fail. The leaders and their families have never missed the taste of meat on their tables, and have never experienced the shame, humiliation, anxiety and sense of not belonging that poor people feel. Furthermore, Israel’s poor are perceived by Israel’s Republican Conservatives such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett as a herd of unproductive individuals, particularly when it comes to Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who top the list of non-productive members of society.

However, those who ignore the poor will have to face them eventually. The black sheep of Israeli society are still maintaining their silence, but they will not turn the other cheek indefinitely. The victims of the market’s distortions, the high cost of living and the collapse of the welfare system will emerge from their remote corners, and just before they are confronted with policemen bent on restoring order, they will take to the streets and give vent to their fury — a justified fury of the poor. Maybe then the state will, for lack of choice, start to properly address one of its most glaring flaws.

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