I am starting to think that this election is not really about security, military strength or the Iranian threat. And if it is, it shouldn’t be. Because the battle that too many Israelis face on a daily basis is more ordinary and statistically more significant than missiles, tunnels and terrorist infiltration. It’s the battle to afford housing and food. Because while luxury apartments with killer views have, over the past decade, transformed the landscape of this country, a huge percentage of its citizens have slipped into dire poverty. Every day low-income workers face the threat of lay offs. In an impromptu speech in mid January, MK Stav Shaffir implored an almost-empty and disinterested Knesset—“Where are the true Zionists—the ones that care about the ordinary people of this country?” I met a true Zionist, who does the Zionist work she describes with quiet and unrelenting dedication. I met him at a YEDID Center in Kiryat Malachi. His name is Elli.
It takes a few minutes to place Elli’s background. His white and rugged beard dominates his pink-skinned face. Strong smile lines and a soft voice quickly show him as caring man with deep empathy. After a minute speaking accent-free Hebrew, he breaks out in Cockney English, revealing himself as an East-Ender and die-hard West Ham fan. Elli arrived in Israel in 1967, just before the War. He spent his first years on Kibbutz Zikim. In 1988 he left the Kibbutz with his wife and went back to England for two years to make some money and enable his transition to city life.
On his return to Israel, he began working as a social worker with the youth population in Ashkelon, and became the director of the Ashkelon Absorption Center. After the huge Ethiopian Aliyah of the early 1990s, his work shifted to the Ethiopian Community, which he served for more than 20 years. A year after retiring he became bored, and now volunteers in a program in the Ashkelon hospital that informs seniors of their rights, and gets them the help they need upon discharge. He also comes to YEDID once a week, where his extensive experience is put to good use helping low-income residents “stand up to bureaucracies.”
“There are huge problems in Kiryat Malachi,” he says. “It’s an impoverished community with a large Ethiopian population.” And as most of us know, the Ethiopian immigrants remain at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. “Thank God for Injera,” says Elli—the sour-tasting flat bread made from an imported Ethiopian flour. “It’s what keeps them going.”
At YEDID Elli meets with clients and writes letters to banks, employers, social workers, Social Security (Bituach Leumi) and a whole host of organizations. “People have problems with not being paid, not being paid enough, not getting severance payments.” He says the work is both frustrating and rewarding. “There is so much frustration in being poor, in being in debt, and not having enough money for your children.” The problem, he says, is “most people don’t know their rights. They don’t know what they are entitled to. It’s difficult, but someone has to do something about it.” He points to one entitlement as an example. “If you do not earn the minimum wage you are entitled to an income tax credit.” That is important information for a large proportion of the population.
And that’s where volunteers like Elli, and organizations like YEDID, play a significant role. Bureaucrats don’t volunteer information,” he says. “Take Bituach Leumi. If you are an invalid and you become a pensioner, you can choose to either continue your invalid payments or start taking your pension. Most people choose pension. But,” he says, “if they continue to receive invalid payments and their situation worsens, they are actually entitled to 150 percent of their invalid payments. That doesn’t exist in the pension system.”
When it comes to people requiring home help, Elli imparts more little known information. Typically, recipients are entitled to six hours a week of home help. But Holocaust survivors are entitled to 50 hours home help a week. With 50,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel now living below the poverty line, this information could make a dramatic difference.
“In Israel there is so much bureaucracy. And for the most part the bureaucrats are unsympathetic. There are so many suicides, and you never know the trigger that is going to put them over the edge. People are exhausted from chasing their tail, unable to keep up.”
“Just look at the system,” he says. “Half of the offices are only open until 1pm, and not open Fridays. When are working people supposed to go?”
“So many people can’t read or write. To access your rights you have to fill out forms, produce bills from previous years. They don’t know how to fill out forms or deal with bureaucracies.” But when someone calls from YEDID, they have no choice but to listen. “We’ll call and say: “Give me your boss.” Then we make progress.”
Elli turns his attention to private insurance companies. “The policy is to refuse coverage the first, second and third time. They wear you down.” He says it’s the same is true for companies such as Bezek, Yes or Cellcom. “The system is not to help individuals, it’s to profit the company. Just to shut down an account you have to fill out multiple forms. They make it very difficult to process anything.”
“Part of the work here is emotional support—giving them a shoulder to cry on.” And sometimes a client will come in looking for help with something, and YEDID will end up providing help in a different area.
Elli met with a woman who needed help with housing. He couldn’t provide the help she needed, However, in the course of their meeting, he learned that she paid 400 shekels a month in medication. After she left, it occurred to him that there is a program that could help her pay for her medications. And so he grabbed the form and ran after her. “She had left disappointed. I thought I could at least help her with something.”
The success story of Israel did not trickle down to the low-income inhabitants of Kiryat Malachi. With volunteers like Elli making a difference in individual cases, we have the chance of reclaiming the true Zionist dream.