Reasons and excuses for Israel’s child poverty crisis

Report cards tend to stir up quite a lot of excitement. For some, hard work and achievements are validated. For others, neglect and poor performance are laid bare. Whatever the case may be, explanations are usually needed as grades alone rarely tell the full story.

So, as I looked out for Israel’s ranking in Unicef’s latest Fairness for Children report, I thought: “Someone has a lot of explaining to do.”

According to the study, Israel has one of the highest levels of socioeconomic disparity among children from 41 EU and OECD developed countries. In fact, the child poverty rate in Israel, as a percentage of the entire population, is higher than places such as Turkey, Chile and Mexico.

What about education? Ranked by how far behind the national average low-achieving children are allowed to fall, Israel’s educational achievement gaps in reading, maths and science is yet again one of the worst. More than twice as bad in comparison with just about all other countries in the report.

I’ve spent the past 15 years working in the non-governmental sector addressing social issues, such as poverty, sustainable development and access to education and healthcare, with a focus on children’s rights and fulfilling their potential.

But what does poverty look like? The obvious examples I’ve seen are in Africa, where babies born to HIV positive mothers in the most barren of huts are at the mercy of a non-existent healthcare system and are unlikely to thrive and survive beyond age 5.

Carmiel Children's Village
Carmiel Children’s Village, that provides a safe home and care and support to 230 children ages 4-18

And in the far off corners of South America’s rainforests, where entire villages of vitamin A deficient children, at risk of going blind, are struggling to cope at school on an empty stomach, because a well-balanced and nutritious meal is a luxury only few can afford.

Growing up in suburban Toronto, I would have never imagined that dramatic cases could exist at home. But acute poverty is often deeply hidden away, overshadowed by a backdrop of bright lights and the modern miracles of a big, bustling city. It was only in my teens that I discovered that the prestigious and upscale downtown enclave of Toronto’s Cabbagetown is side by side with one of the most densely populated corners of North America, Regent’s Park, where government subsidised sky scrapers house five to six families of refugees within each single unit. In London, a similar phenomenon exists in affluent boroughs such as Kensington and Westminster.

So, what is really going on in Israel? The troubling figures reveal so much and at the same time, so little. How do we unpack the data, analyse and understand the indicators?

How do we make sense of it. And, more importantly, how do we respond?

My work with UJIA in the Galil has brought me face to face with the poverty, disparity and inaccessibility referenced in the Unicef report.

In Israel’s northern periphery, close to 45 percent of children are living below the poverty line, way above the already disturbing 27.5 percent national average.

I often hear the argument that it’s the predicament of the Arab and Haredi populations, which are skewing the figures. Yet at a recent meeting of UJIA volunteers in Tsfat, Professor Dan Ben-David, a leading voice on this issue, clarified that even when demographic data of both constituents are removed from the equation, Israel still ranks alarmingly in most categories.

A picture from the Equalizer programme that reaches out to the most vulnerable children through football and educational support. (Credit UJIA)
A picture from the Equalizer programme that reaches out to the most vulnerable children through football and educational support. (Credit UJIA)

As I’ve learned over the years, there is no shortage of reasons, explanations and even excuses, but from the perspective of the children, none of these really matter.

We need to focus on the questions: what can be done? And what’s our role?

Non-governmental organisations, charities, the private sector and the academic community need to work together with the government to tackle the issues at all levels.

Diaspora communities are having a major impact — donations to UJIA fund projects across the Galil, including early childhood centres, after-school tutoring and building upgrades, benefiting 15,000 young people every year.

Although the scale and scope of the work needed can be daunting at times, I’m still reassured by Prof Ben-David’s closing remarks to us that Israel is not a sinking ship. We can still act now and change the course and our future for the better.

So, in five years, when the report cards come out again, I hope we will see our collective hard work and achievements validated by many more Israeli children living a better life — a life we would want for our own children.

About the Author
Rachel Lasry Zahavi works in Israel for UK Jewish charity UJIA, which supports diverse programmes in the Galilee. She is passionate about the NGO world and her degrees in Anthropology, Emergency and Disaster Management, as well as Informal Education, have somehow become rather handy. Rachel enjoys sharing those stories that are often never told; stories of inspiring people she meets in Israel’s forgotten corners.