Israelis Need Welfare, Not Charity

Minister Kahlon's criticism of Israeli food charities is justified. His initiative to provide food voucher smart cards is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.

Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon antagonized Israeli food charities earlier this week by criticizing their "humiliating" method of distributing food to the needy by "throwing cartons at them." He accused the heads of charitable organizations of pulling down high salaries, at the expense of the needy. The nonprofits, for their part, responded by saying they are filling a vacuum created by the government.

Let us hope that Kahlon's remarks and the outcry it provoked give rise to a public debate and to a change in policy. In contrast to many of his predecessors in the position, Kahlon believes in restoring the responsibility for public welfare to the state. The front that he opened against the charities should require him to take the kind of determined stance he displayed vis-a-vis the mobile phone operators and their high fees, in his role as communications minister.

Volunteers fill boxes of food at an Israeli food pantry.
Nir Kafri

It can be assumed that his sharp language is partly due to recent efforts by the charities, through the Knesset Finance Committee and the Knesset Caucus for Nutritional Security, to lobby for the restoration of the NIS 200 million aid fund for nonprofits, as promised by the government.

This promise was part of the coalition agreement with the Labor Party - under its former chairman, Ehud Barak - in accordance with the stated goal of devolving numerous functions of the state to the nonprofit sector. Another contributing factor in the expansion of government aid to food charities was the combined punch of the almost unimaginable proliferation of these charities and the exhaustion of their resources in the wake of the global economic crisis.

The proliferation of charities reflects a complex mix of genuine need and the exploitation of this need for political and other purposes. Organizations in the American philanthropic mold compete with ultra-Orthodox charities and with public relations agents for charities. And all of them squeeze the compassion glands of the media on the eve of every holiday.

The need is real. A March 2008 report from the Social Affairs Ministry's food security committee determined that 31 percent of Israeli households are food-insecure, but also recommended that the state take control of food distribution to the needy. The committee's recommendations were not implemented.

Kahlon's criticism of the charities is justified. His initiative to provide food voucher smart cards is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. He must now endeavor to introduce a clear policy of welfare, rather than charity.