It’s not all about the money

As Israel’s politicians reassemble parliament following the elections, the financial ramifications of the high cost of living and housing on Israel’s poorer populations flood the media. The Likud promises to make this the Number One item on its new agenda. Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party will try to lower the cost of living by introducing banking reforms, and Aryeh Deri’s Shas will continue to demand higher public housing construction and a raise in the wages of Israel’s “invisible sector” of lower-class workers.

The economic hardships and lack of equal opportunity felt by Israel’s lower-class are real; the parties vying for the people’s support during these elections have intentionally hit a sore nerve which needs to be seriously addressed. Statistically, youth from Israel’s lower-class communities in the periphery are half as likely to enroll in higher education or enlist in the Israel Defense Forces than other Israelis. And no higher education means less opportunity for gainful employment.

During these elections, no approach attempting to change the way people think of themselves or their ability to influence their situation has been suggested as a viable component to complement the financial reforms discussed.

True, financial initiatives may help, but a strong case can be made that the core of the problem is no less motivational than it is financial. The Tamir Organization for Social Leadership, a pre-military training academy in the Golan Heights, challenges the notion that financial incentives are the primary avenue for financial prosperity in Israel’s peripheries. Tamir feels the real answer to regional underachievement lies elsewhere.

As a veteran educational program catering particularly to disadvantaged at-risk youth from poorer neighborhoods, including many students from new-immigrant families, Tamir knows the challenges these communities face better than many of our politicians. For twelve years, Tamir has shown that the real catalyst for social change and economic progress is motivational and depends mainly on the individual. The problem, they posit, is that these populations do not believe they are capable of building better economic futures for themselves, and instead have traditionally set their sights on “getting by” and lobbying for significant financial handouts. Their certainty about the bleakness of their situation is so palpable to them, that no amount of financial incentives will convince them to grab the bull by the horns and take control of their futures regardless of the difficulties entailed. Therefore, Tamir created a program which rewires the youth of these communities to think differently about what their true talents are and find new motivation to pro-actively do something to improve their and their communities’ futures.

The results? Every year, all students decide to enlist in highly-productive and demanding positions in the IDF, most in combat units. Many continue on to elite units and/or become commanders. Half of them enroll in higher education following their military tenure. Almost all of them push themselves to embark upon more gainful careers and subsequently earn higher wages than their neighbors.

In short — a resounding success.

In 2006, then-Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aroused the ire of Israel’s lower-class when he drastically reduced child allowances for families with children under eighteen. His reasoning: government allocations are the cause of low employment, not the solution for it.

Similar to Mr. Netanyahu’s reasoning, Tamir agrees that motivation was/is the key factor in changing financial realities for underprivileged communities. Different from Mr. Netanyahu, however, positive motivation is employed via a highly-motivational educational program: small group discussions of Jewish values and texts give the students general direction and help them aspire to a better world; physical and mental challenges give them new self-esteem and teach them the value of trust; intensive volunteer initiatives show them how they are capable of positively influencing their environment.

Formal programs providing high school teens with Tamir’s kind of motivation and direction are relatively inexpensive to implement, and should be duplicated on a wide scale by the Education Ministry. The great value in the Tamir model is that graduates of such a program remain determined to succeed regardless of the physical, mental or financial challenges.

Not that financial incentives aren’t necessary, just that they can in no way be perceived as the axis upon which financial prosperity lies. A political platform which promotes this kind of core solution for Israel’s disadvantaged populations would convey seriousness in solving the crux of the issue.

About the Author
Binyamin Schwartz moved his family to Tel Aviv from 2001-2014 to help break stereotypes between religious and secular communities in Israeli society. He was awarded Yakir Hachinuch Hadati in 2007 by Israel's Ministry of Education for the establishment of six preschools in the area. Today, he lives in the city of Ariel in Samaria, Israel, and is the Development Executive for the Tamir Organization for Social Leadership.