Fighting the collapse of social services in Israel

Official government statistics point to an all-time peak in the country’s social gap. It’s time Israelis stand up for their rights

By Tali Nir

Fighting the collapse of social services in Israel
Israel's Human Rights March in Tel Aviv, 2009 (photo: Naaman Saar Stavy)

Israelis do not like to be taken for suckers or fools. It is somehow imprinted in our national DNA.  Nevertheless, when we look back at what has happened to our country over the last decade – in terms of what we contribute to the state and what we receive in return – the question arises whether we, as a society, are genuinely aware of our rights and know how to protect them, or whether we’ve been suckers.

Last week, the Ministry of Education published data showing that some 250,000 hours of classroom instruction have been cut [Hebrew] from our schools over the last decade, of which only 100,000 have been returned over the last two years.  These numbers show the collapse of our school system, such that quality education today is only attainable for those who are able and willing to pay for it.

Similarly, our health care system has slashed medical services [Hebrew, PDF] and eliminated many subsidized drugs, resulting in a 30% increase in private expenditure for personal health care. In Israel’s periphery and among its poorer and elderly populations, many have been forced to forgo essential medical services because they are unable to afford it.

The picture deepens when we think about housing and unemployment – we all know how expensive it is to buy or rent an apartment in Israel today. If we are unemployed, we know that occupational re-training from the state no longer exists and that no one will extend a hand to help extract us from financial straits. Even if we have a job, no monitors exist to ensure that our social rights, enshrined in Israeli law, are not stolen from us.

This is not one big coincidence. For too many years, government policy has been to dry up the essential public services that are supposed to care for us, and to undermine Israel’s social services.  Despite the high taxes we pay, the government prefers to invest only in specific interests, while assuming that the people will somehow manage to get along and purchase those services that the state no longer provides. The Carmel fire disaster is a chilling testament to where this policy has led us.

The damage has been extensive to us, both as individuals and as a society. When a child cannot receive a proper education, what chance does he or she have to develop into a productive, contributing member of society? When there is no occupational re-training, how can we reduce the rolls of our unemployed?

The results have become brutally clear this week, when official government statistics point to an all-time peak in the country’s social gap. According to the National Insurance Institute [Hebrew, PDF], one in four Israelis lives in poverty: twice the average of Western nations. The level of inequality is the highest among developed countries, a staggering 22% higher than the average in OECD countries.

This should concern us all, first regarding the injustice faced by the majority of Israelis who cannot afford to pay for private essential services.  Indeed, it turns out that most of us still believe in the need for social solidarity: a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and published last week shows that 82% of Israelis believe that free medical care should be given to patients with no health insurance, while 79% of Israelis believe that in order to preserve democracy, the state must invest more money in education in economically disadvantaged areas, even at the expense of other budget items, so that students from the periphery can achieve the same results as students from wealthier districts.

Additionally, most Israelis understand that the infringement of social rights for millions of people causes injury to democracy in its most basic sense: 72% of poll respondents indicated that Israel’s democracy is damaged by the growing disparity between rich and poor.  For them, it is clear that an uneducated class living in poverty cannot truly participate in political life, because they don’t know what political life is.  When people are totally occupied with their own physical survival, they are not interested in protecting their freedom of speech or whether their government is democratic or not. Dismantling this country’s social safety net and welfare programs is the quickest way to undermine its democracy and lead us down a path towards some form of tyranny. It is worth mentioning that in such a place, personal security is also placed in jeopardy.  As is known, poverty and economic gaps breed social unrest, which can take on the cloth of violence both on the individual and societal level.

There is reason for concern even amongst the capitalists: many studies indicate that the greater the inequality in a country, the more that economic growth is inhibited.  Secretary-General of the OECD Angel Gurria, who recently visited here, stated [Hebrew] explicitly that if we don’t invest thought and money into reducing our social gap, we will not be able to grow into a prosperous country, rather we will reach an economic dead end.

In fact, in all these instances we are talking about government policy and whether or not it promotes social rights. Rights are not political considerations, rather they are principles which obligate the state to act toward its citizenry in a certain manner. They require that the state enable its citizens to develop and to live in dignity, without arbitrary government actions that harm the people. Today more than ever we must stand upon this principle and demand its realization. That is the reason why we have a state, and why we pay taxes to it.

This Friday, around the world, people will commemorate International Human Rights Day. In Tel Aviv, ACRI has organized the second annual Human Rights March in Israel, and thousands of concerned citizens are expected to participate, as well as hundreds of organizations promoting social change.  If you are one of the many who believe that the call for preserving our rights must resonate loud and clear, this is your opportunity to take to the streets and say in no uncertain terms: “We won’t be suckers any longer. We won’t get fooled again!”

Tali Nir is the Director of Social and Economic Rights at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). A modified version of this article in Hebrew ran in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot on December 7th 2010.