I read with interest the recent court decision on hot lunches in Betar Illit, which ruled that only government-supervised schools are eligible for the Education Ministry's subsidized lunch program.
The background of the case is as follows: The Education Ministry has instituted a longer school day; children who were always home in the afternoon are now in class. Because all children require lunch, and because many would not bring an adequate meal from home for various social, economic and logistic reasons, a school lunch program was enacted in a bill, called the "Nourishment law" (chok hazana).
The city of Betar petitioned to be included in the project, and the petition was approved. However, its citizens were astonished and disappointed to discover that the Education Ministry and its partners in implementing the law provide subsidized lunches only in public schools, which serve a minority of Betar's school-age population. Most students were left without any government involvement in their lunch program, and the municipality sued the ministry and its partners.
The first argument was that the law, which was ambiguously worded, included private schools. The second argument was that if the law excludes them, then it constitutes a discriminatory statute which needs to be revised, either by direct court order or by judicial review - sending it back to the legislature for revision.
THE COURT rejected both claims. The judges read the law as clearly applying only to public schools, and rejected the discrimination argument by pointing out that these schools are available to all.
In a way, the two approaches to the lunch program reflect two popular paradigms for welfare in general. One approach is the "entitlement" paradigm: social benefits are a basic right of every citizen, just like civil rights. Thus providing a basic standard of living is a fundamental responsibility of a modern democracy.
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The other approach is the "charity" approach: Poor people don't have a right to aid, but the community generously provides it out of the goodness of its heart.
The municipality of Betar Illit assumed that subsidized lunches were an entitlement, but the court concluded that they are a kind of special aid, subject to the usual distinctions of policy agenda.
A prominent foil in this whole debate has been MK Yuli Tamir. Tamir is ideologically committed to the entitlement approach, and spoke out forcefully at a conference a few months ago against the "generous donor" approach to public support. With respect to this specific law, she proposed her own version, which was more entitlement-oriented in many respects. For example, it did not involve any foreign charities, unlike the current program.
Her law was ultimately passed over in favor of a very similar one which embodied more of an "aid" mentality. Finally, after the court decision she spoke out against the arbitrary result - that within the same city some Israeli citizens are being provided with state-supported lunches while others are not.
Ultimately the question is about drawing lines. Dr. Meir Tamari, founder of the Business Ethics Center, has often opined that not all public assistance can realistically be an "entitlement," and that there is a vital role for voluntary and altruistic assistance in the provision of social services.
But it is equally true that a wealthy and modern democratic society can afford to expand its entitlements beyond civil rights and guarantee certain basic economic needs to all its citizens.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute located in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.
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