Israel is unique. There is no other country in the region that can match both our ancient heritage and modern high-tech. We are a biblical kingdom and a 21st century nation state.
Despite remarkable success and tremendous achievements in so many fields, poverty remains one of the greatest challenges facing Israel today. Statistics tell a grim story. According to the National Insurance Institute, more than 1.7 million Israelis live below the poverty line, including 33 percent of Israeli children and about 23 percent of the elderly. In a survey conducted in 2012 by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship), the organization I founded and am privileged to serve as president of to this day, about a quarter of the elderly in Israel faced the unimaginable choice of foregoing heating their homes, buying food or buying medication this past winter. Another study released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Israel’s poverty rate is the highest in the developed world, and nearly twice that of the OECD average.
The statistics are borne out by experience. We see it when we walk through the streets of some of Israel’s poor neighbors. The heartbreaking stories I hear in the lines outside the many soup kitchens supported by The Fellowship, are repeated when we visit the homes of needy families throughout the country. There is great need in this land of plenty.
It is worth pausing to consider these facts and hear these stories, especially as Israel and the Jewish people worldwide prepare to observe Passover. On this holiday, we celebrate our transition from exile to freedom, from slavery to redemption. We mark the birth of the Jewish people as a nation, and give thanks for the wonders that have been accomplished with the birth of the modern state of Israel. We celebrate with family and friends and food aplenty.
The themes are indeed worth celebrating. But the celebration should be tempered with the realization that many of the most vulnerable among us – particularly needy children and the elderly – have yet to realize the full promise of our liberation. We may no longer live in shackles and be subject to the whims of cruel rulers, as we did when we were slaves in Egypt; but to have nothing to eat, to be unable to afford the medicine you desperately need to survive or to live without pain, or to be elderly and homebound and live imprisoned in your own isolation and loneliness are all kinds of slavery as well.
The Fellowship does what it can to provide the liberation from hunger, want, and pain, by funding numerous programs that support people who have fallen through the cracks of society or are struggling to survive in a new country. And recently, we launched a major initiative in Israel that we call “With Dignity and Fellowship,” which will supply the elderly with the dignity that comes from not having to beg for food or go hungry, the dignity of companionship, and the dignity of knowing that they are cared for and valued. Our funds come from Christians across the world, friends of Israel and the Jewish people, who contribute whatever they can to ensure that no Jew goes hungry or without the most basic needs.
But it is time for our government to devote more of its resources to helping those who cannot help themselves – who are suffering quietly with no political voice or influence to make their needs known. If we believe, as I do, that a society is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members, we cannot do otherwise.
The welfare ministry’s War on Poverty committee is reportedly going to publish its overdue report right after Passover. I am hopeful that the committee will make clear, practical and far-reaching recommendations, that the necessary funds will be allocated in the next budget and that the government will then implement the recommendations in a serious and strategic way. The Fellowship will continue to do all it can to help the poor and the needy but the responsibility for finding a solution rests with the state.
When Moses was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, he told Pharaoh, “We will leave with our youth and our elderly.” He gave prominence to two groups that are too often weak and vulnerable, but that are critically important to any society. We must all, as a people – including those who set and implement our government policies – come to see the ethical responsibility we have to help both the young and the old, so they will know that they are valuable to God and to others, so they will have a strong future, and so we continue to ensure that Israel has one as well.