“Our wealth – our treasure, is our human intellect. This is our gift, this is our future,” Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel recently told The Jerusalem Post.
As social equality minister you have your work cut out for you. Israel is consistently ranked among the bottom countries in the developed world with regard to poverty and inequality. Do you think this is a result of years of neglect and poor government policies?
Ahead of her speech at the paper’s annual conference in New York on May 22, Gamliel addressed some of the most pressing issues on the agenda regarding inequality in Israel among minorities, women, the elderly and those who live on the country’s periphery.
In an interview with the Post, she revealed how the country intends to use its status and know-how as the “startup nation” to harness digital technology to reduce socio-economic gaps.
One of my top priorities in office is reducing the social gaps in our society, and strengthening the periphery of the country.
The statistics reflect Israel’s diverse society, with Arab Israelis making up 20 percent of the population and a vibrant haredi [ultra-Orthodox] community, where the socio-economic levels are often very low. In both of these sectors we have a lot of work to do to help these communities better integrate into society, and we are hard at work doing this with various landmark programs and initiatives now in place.
I strongly believe that by strengthening these communities we are strengthening Israel as a whole. This is making for a better, stronger Israel.
Every citizen – irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion, or place of birth – must be ensured equal opportunities.
This is rooted in our Declaration of Independence. We have made great progress, but we need to continue working to make sure that this is the reality as well.What are some of the most pressing issues on the agenda pertaining to inequality?
My mantra is that there is no reason why in the 21st century women should be treated any differently than men.
We see that in Israel women have reached the pinnacles of society. We are one of the first Western countries in the world to have had a woman prime minister with Golda Meir, a woman serves as president of the Supreme Court for the second time now, an Israeli Arab parliamentarian chairs the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of Women, and women serve in an array of combat roles in the military.
But clearly there is still room for additional improvement.
Equal opportunity must start in the workforce. Women must be afforded equal opportunity as men. I would like to see more women at the top.
We see that companies that integrate women in their senior workforce are more successful than those that do not. Indeed, this isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.
In academia, where women now outnumber men in first degrees. I would like to see more women getting advanced degrees, without being penalized for starting a family.
Similarly, Israel’s minority sector needs to have the same opportunities afforded to the rest of the public.
In this way, we will strengthen their connection to the state and make them feel at home.
Our seniors, who have made their contribution to Israel, now deserve our support. While some, especially Holocaust survivors, need to be assisted in their golden years, others are interested in and should be encouraged to continue being active in society.
What steps are you taking or have you taken to address these issues?
I am very proud that the cabinet has passed a landmark billion dollar budget for Arab citizens and other minority populations in order to reduce the social gaps and improve the living conditions of this sector.
The NIS 15 billion economic development plan, which was spearheaded by my ministry in coordination with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry, will be spread out over five years and will be devoted to education, transportation, road infrastructure, employment initiatives, housing, culture, sports and other areas.
It is an historic and critically important step toward reducing social gaps and advancing equality in Israel.
Similarly, I am determined to work toward full gender equality in all aspects of life.
To this end, I have created a plan where every governmental office will have to submit a gender budget defining how much money they allocate to women. We need to see where the budget is going, and if it is not balanced then we must balance it.
This is uncharted territory, but we are going to do it because equality must start in the workforce.
We are also working on expanding courses for the economic empowerment of women – including women in the ultra-Orthodox sector – allowing them to better integrate in the workforce, and thereby reduce the gender gap.You have been vocal about the need to provide more funding and investment in the Arab municipalities as part of an effort to minimize gaps. Given that this is less popular approach, do you worry about how you will fare in the next election?
I believe that strengthening the minority sector in Israel strengthens Israeli society as a whole and this is a view shared by the prime minister and members of my party as well.
This is both our duty and our responsibility.
This is above politics. I do think people internalize this.Are there any additional measures being taken to minimize inequality?
Israel has stood at the forefront of advances in hi-tech and medical discoveries, which have improved the lives of so many people in Israel and all over the world.
But, at the same time, we are still facing significant socio-economic gaps in Israel, especially in the periphery of the country and among minority groups who do not receive equal opportunities and access to public services.
Schools and hospitals located in the periphery of the country are at a disadvantage compared to those in metropolitan areas.
But in today’s digital world geographic distance is no longer an excuse for inequality.
This is why I am especially excited to be leading the Digital Israel project, which, via the latest in digital technology, seeks to reduce these social gaps and improve services to the population at large.
Among other things the project will, for example, provide online courses with top instructors from the most respected educational institutions around the world to anyone, anywhere in Israel.
This program is so important because it will allow those living in the periphery to access some of the best educators the world over.
Similarly, it will connect patients in the periphery with top medical experts in a variety of fields who they otherwise might not have been able to consult.
The program also affords the opportunity to people in lower socio-economic levels like the ultra-Orthodox or the Arab sector to move ahead by providing them with the tools and technological knowledge of the 21st century.
To this end, we seek to create digital modernization centers in the periphery, digitally smart Arab towns and villages and digital training courses for the ultra-Orthodox sector.
This project, while technology- centered, is way more than that.
It is a project for a better future.
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