Israelis' avoidably poor state

Earlier this month, Israel's National Insurance Institute released its annual poverty report for 2009. It does not make for pleasant reading.

The institute has found that around 435,100 Israeli families - accounting for more than 1.75 million individuals - were then living below the poverty line.

A year earlier, the number of Israelis living in poverty had been 1.65 million. It is not just the overall incidence of poverty in the Jewish state that has increased. What is especially shocking is the increase in child poverty. In 2008, the NationaI Insurance Institute considered 783,600 children to be "poor". A year later, the estimate has risen to 850,300. Put in a nutshell, more than one-fifth of the total population of the state now live below the poverty line, meaning that, in broad terms, they lack the means of bare subsistence from their own or their families' resources.

Comparisons with other countries can never be exact. But an analysis published recently by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics demonstrated in stark fashion that, in the world poverty league-table, Israel has the dubious distinction of being ranked worse than any country of the EU - even worse, that is, than Bulgaria and Romania. Indeed, while, in the EU, 17 per cent of the population are considered to be at risk of poverty, for Israel the proportion is a staggering 29 per cent.

Dire poverty is the lot of followers of primeval Israeli rabbis

And, for a comparison nearer home, consider this: here in the United Kingdom, in 2008-9 some 13.5 million persons ‑- around a fifth of the total population - were deemed to be living in households below the "low income threshold."

Now we can argue (I do not propose to do so here) about the meaning of this term and whether a family that claims it can afford neither television nor the internet is actually genuinely "impoverished". We can also argue (again, I do not propose to do so here) about whether the British welfare state should continue to be built on the principle of universality, or whether the state should supply merely an ultimate safety-net for the really destitute.

My point is that no one in the UK starves, or is genuinely obliged to beg. We might also note that, measured against the same low-income threshold, the incidence of poverty in the UK has in fact been decreasing in recent times. For instance, the number of UK citizens on low incomes is marginally lower now than it was 20 years ago.

In particular, there are fewer children and pensioners living in low-income households now than there were then. Today, most of the people in low-income households in this country are single adults, not couples with dependent children.

In Israel, alas, the picture is very different. Poverty has grown, is growing and shows no signs of diminishing. And the NII report identifies for us the precise segments of Israeli society affected by this blight: Arab households and charedi families come top of the list, followed by single parents, new immigrants and manual workers who have either lost their jobs or been forced to accept work for lower wages.

As Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog noted in presenting the report, poverty levels in Israel are currently twice that of other member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to which Israel was admitted with much, understandable celebration earlier this year. Little wonder, therefore, that Herzog warned that "poverty is the biggest danger facing Israel today".

What is to be done?

There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution. However, some palliatives are obvious. Arabs account for a fifth of Israel's population, but for a third of Israel's poor. As a matter of fact, poverty and unemployment rates among Israeli Arabs have been falling. They need to fall further and faster, and the way to do this is to bring more of them into further and higher education.

Education is also the key to making inroads into charedi poverty. Around 60 per cent of Israeli charedim live in poverty. This is a staggering percentage, the inevitable result of chronically poor rates of employment. But while very understandable security concerns might explain - at least in part - historically high rates of unemployment among Israeli Arabs, they do not begin to explain the plight of the charedim.

A much more compelling explanation is surely to be found in the primeval opposition of charedi rabbinical leaders to secular studies of any description.

Until these leaderships abandon this self-destructive and irreligious narrow-mindedness, only the direst poverty will continue to be the lot of those who blindly follow their rulings.

    Last updated: 5:06pm, November 18 2010