Thinking Aloud: Israel’s Bitter Herbs

Apr. 10, 2014 by Darius 

Monday marks the beginning of Passover, one of the most important holidays of the Jewish calendar.  Traditionally, Jews gather with their families on the first day of Passover to eat a meal.  This year, though, that meal may be harder to come by for many Israelis.  According to a report from the Israeli State Comptroller and private charities, more Israelis than ever before are living in poverty.

In December 2013, a large food distribution charity in Israel, Latet, produced a report detailing poverty in Israel.  It was deliberately only publicized now to coincide with Passover.  The findings are quite jaw-dropping.  More than 500,000 families in Israel reported suffering from nutritional insecurity; of those, 60% reported their children went full days without food.  Moreover, the problem is getting worse: according to the director of Latet, demand for special food packages for Passover this year is up 20% from last year.  [Source: “More Israelis Living in Poverty on Eve of Passover,” Al Monitor Israel Pulse, April 8, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/04/passover-2014-poverty-wealth-disparity-israel-children.html]

What is the Israeli government doing about the poverty problem?  According to the Israeli State Comptroller, Yosef Shapira, not much.  Shapira recently wrote in a special report that the Israeli government has failed to craft policy to meet the challenge of nutritional insecurity in Israel and, more importantly, has failed to implement policies already in place, spending just 13% of budgeted funds.  Instead, the government has shunted responsibility to the private sector.

Growing poverty in Israel doesn’t make headlines in US newspapers.  But it does in Israel.  Israeli politicians are acutely aware that the Israeli economic miracle is in trouble.  Some parties are campaigning on economic issues and doing well.  That is one of the reason’s Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (or “There Is a Future”) party won the second-most seats in the Knesset last election.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have taken a different approach, though: keep drumming up popular sentiment against external threats to Israel and perhaps the public will forget that the quality of life for many Israelis is declining.  After all, if Netanyahu and his conservative allies weren’t able to scare the public into voting for them, they certainly wouldn’t win on domestic issues.

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