Allow me to read you some startling numbers coming out of Israel. Numbers that if they weren’t published by some of the most reputable sources inside and outside of Israel you would call me a liar or an outright hypochondriac.
These are not the 100,000 demonstrators who braved the rain and cold a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday night in Tel Aviv to protest the planned overhaul of the judicial system in Israel. It’s not the hundreds of millions of investment dollars that has already started to seep out of Israel due to the planned judicial shakeup and it is certainly not the hundreds of millions worth of drugs that four young Israeli girls attempted to smuggle into the country right under the noses of alert customs officials two weeks ago. No, astonishing as those numbers may be, the numbers I’m about to cite are much more alarming.
The 2021 poverty figures were released last month and sadly, it hardly raised an eyebrow. It’s no secret that Israel has been dealing with rising poverty levels consistently now for the last twenty years. What did come as a shock last week was the severity of the problem and the ghastly numbers to come out of the OECD and Israel’s own National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi) for 2021.
Lost in the headlines of judicial reform, threats to Israel’s democracy, the return of terror to Israel’s streets and the mass protests against the new government’s reforms was the eye-opening story of Israel’s growing poor.
According to the National Insurance Institute’s 2021 data, 21% of the Israeli population lives in poverty. That’s almost two million people! As if this was not alarming enough, the statistics are even more dreadful when speaking about children living in poverty: 850,000 children or 28% of the population (almost 1 in every 3 children).
How are there not hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against this phenomenon called “the rising poverty figures in Israel”? How can this happen? How can an industrialized, high-tech powerhouse like Israel have so many poor people residing within its borders? How can it be that one of every three children in Israel is living in poverty and in all likelihood going to bed hungry?
No matter how much I try, I just can not wrap my head around these figures. You would think that African countries like The Congo or Niger would claim these kinds of poverty numbers. Screw judicial reform. I don’t care who ends up being the speaker of the Knesset. Let Itamar Ben Gvir walk all over the Temple Mount. All of these hotbed stories pale in comparison to the immeasurable suffering of our impoverished children.
On the international stage Israel has slipped to second to last of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries and sits at number 36 out of 37 countries in the developed world just beating out Costa Rica for last place. Freaking Costa Rica?? The Costa Rica that is a respectable tourist destination but better known for its vast area of protected jungles, volcanoes, and spider monkeys? How can Israel end up behind countries like Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia and Turkey? How are WE letting this happen?
You know what is REALLY scary? These figures were calculated BEFORE the recent onslaught of prices increases across Israel and BEFORE the cessation of the Corona related unemployment benefits that were started in 2020 to ease the pain of the recent pandemic. In other words, don’t expect these figures to get any better anytime soon and don’t be surprised if Costa Rica begins to see us in their rear view mirror leaving Israel to bring up the rear of the developed world.
A deeper dive into these shameful, numbers show that the poor became poorer and what was described as the “middle class” in Israel has shrunk leaving tens of thousand of “new” poor below the poverty line.
Additional data showed that one in four Israelis cannot finish the month on the plus side which means that 25% of our population is sinking deeper and deeper into poverty. One in ten Israelis pushed off medical care because they just could not afford it.
If those numbers weren’t enough to spin your head around, 522,000 families are not only in poverty but are in a state of malnutrition which means they are not only barely getting by but they are doing it by eating the cheapest and least nutritious foods on the market like white bread and pasta. This unhealthy diet will invariably lead to increased sickness and yes, death.
What is really sad is that most of the responsibility for closing this poverty gap and helping poor families break this horrible cycle of poverty are private organizations that get very little, if any, help from the government. Organizations like Meir Panim, Colel Chabad, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit and countless others rely on generous donations from wealthier Jews around the world to help feed the people of Israel. That needs to change.
Private chesed organizations need to be ancillary aid organizations and not the main caretakers of Israel’s poor. The Israeli government AND the people of Israel must wake up and wake up fast to head off this impending catastrophe. There is no way we can accept a reality where so many families, especially children, live in such poverty.
Sadly, I don’t have any answers but lots of people who are smarter than me in the government, the business world and the countless organizations that support Israel need to get together to head off this impending crisis. It’s not just a stain on the poor in our society but a stain on us all!