Yes Mr. President, Israel needs a budget. And it must, for once, feed the hungry

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the opening of the Knesset's winter session on October 12, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/ Knesset Spokesperson's Office)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the opening of the Knesset's winter session on October 12, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/ Knesset Spokesperson's Office)

The viral video of a Tel Aviv shoe seller throwing his stock on to the sidewalk is the latest symbol of the economic devastation wrought by lockdown.

In my office, we constantly hear the sound of desperation. It’s the ringing of a phone or a message on facebook, announcing dozens of times every day that a fellow Israeli citizen who has never before needed help putting food on the table needs our help. 

They include people who have worked their whole lives, often in stable jobs, who never dreamed they would be close to the breadline, never mind falling below it. 

The sights, sounds and statistics of deepening poverty – with nearly a million people out of work – are everywhere. For many, any benefits they receive simply aren’t enough. They need food from charities.

I chair one such non-profit, Leket Israel, the National Food Bank, and seven months into the pandemic, feel both pride and panic. It’s remarkable that we’ve been able to feed the growing number of hungry so far. But we just can’t go on carrying the burden, and the state must step in.

Government funding for our work is almost non-existent. It’s not guaranteed by a state budget (more on that shortly), and consists of sums authorized by one-off decisions. For 2020, the total of the government’s funding to put food on the table of Israel’s poor is 60 million shekels, a tiny drop in the ocean in terms of what is needed.   

This paltry figure hasn’t increased during the pandemic, despite demand skyrocketing. Since coronavirus struck, food charities like mine haven’t had significant or consistent funding from authorities.

We are the state’s safety net that protect citizens from falling into starvation, yet we’ve had to manage the pandemic knowing that we don’t have any guaranteed and ongoing allocation of public money.

This must change.

It must change now, as we have never seen need like this, and we simply can’t tell citizens of a state built on Jewish values that they must go hungry. 

It must change now as weary non-profits mark seven months of the pandemic, and as donors are overwhelmed with funding requests. 

It must change now as Israel battles its second coronavirus wave, and doesn’t know if it will face a third wave, and what another spate of high infections may mean for poverty.

It must change now as we know that economic recovery is going to be a long process, and that things could well get worse before they get better. 

It must change because we’re bracing ourselves for even more requests before 2020 ends, as it takes six to nine months for people in Israel to drop below the poverty line once the main breadwinner loses work. We’re in month seven of the crisis.  

And it must change now, in the context of budget talks. There’s a growing realization that Israel urgently needs a budget, and funding for food charities should be written in it, in black and white. 

This week, President Reuven Rivlin, declared to Knesset that after functioning for too long without a budget, the country needs one, to care for normal citizens. “Pass the budget now and give Israel’s economy the basic stability it needs,” he urged. 

Rivlin said: “For more than two years, the State of Israel has been running without a budget… Do not allow the social welfare system to collapse for young people at risk without a framework, for those women facing brutal violence, for the elderly and the isolated, as poverty grows. Look after them today. Take care of them now.”

Food charities are a key part of the structures that President Rivlin believes protect Israelis. He told us this during a recent visit to one of Leket’s facilities.

We’ve always done our thrifty best to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste, and when facing bills, appeal to donors. But we never faced a time like this, as as the government formulates its lockdown exit strategy, the government that shut down the country to keep the nation healthy should make a relatively modest budget allocation to ensure it stays fed. 

If all the food charities disappeared tomorrow, it would cost the state huge sums to build the infrastructure and start delivering the services we provide. As a strategy of caring for the country’s most needy, allocating budgets to food charities is a smart move.

And there is a strong moral calling to do exactly this. Just after Israel passed the sad marker of 2,000 coronavirus dead, President Rivlin mourned them, and said: “May we be forgiven for the sin we committed through helplessness, for not doing enough, for not being able to save them and because of which – lives were lost.” 

We don’t have a cure for the coronavirus. But when it comes to the current plague of hunger, there is no “helplessness” — the state does have cure. It needs no research, no testing, just a line in a budget.

About the Author
Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket Israel -- The National Food Bank, the leading food rescue non-profit organization that rescues fresh, perishable food, working with 195 non-profits throughout the country to distribute nutritious food to over 175,000 Israelis weekly.
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