'Wisconsin targets old, weak'

More than 100 demonstrators took to the streets outside the Prime Minister's Office Sunday to call for the immediate cancellation of the 10-month-old Wisconsin Plan, which they claim has targeted the sick and elderly and has only served to create profits for a small number of businesses involved in it. "The only people benefiting from this program are the companies that are running it, not the people," said Wabee Barzane, head of the Nazareth-based Laborer's Voice, an organization that defends the rights of the unemployed and working poor in Israel. "Most of the people on the program are old or sick, it is really a battle of weak people who have been taken advantage of." Barzane brought with him to the demonstration a bus load of Wisconsin Plan participants from Nazareth, who joined forces with program participants from Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Hadera as well. Inaugurated on August 2005, the Wisconsin plan is known in Hebrew as Mehalev, or "from the heart." Still only a pilot program, it claims to cater to some 14,500 participants who were previously receiving welfare and income support. These individuals, who according to the law must report to one of the centers for at least 30 hours a week or they forgo their benefits, were chosen by the National Insurance Institute to join the program. Four multi-national companies were selected to run the program. To break even they must reduce the number of welfare recipients by 35 percent, bringing in between NIS 50-60 million per office, in addition to the NIS 20m. per office invested by the government. MK Jamal Zahalka of the Balad Party, who joined the rally Sunday, told The Jerusalem Post that, "the goal was to get people working but so far thousands of people have found themselves with no work and no benefits." He said that he had already initiated a bill in the Knesset calling for the plan to be cancelled immediately and he is waiting to see if the new government, which includes Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai who were both originally against the plan, would support him. Dorit Novak, program administrator for the Wisconsin Plan, defended the program and told the Post that her team of workers was dealing with most of the initial problems that had arisen. "We are talking about a big change for people, many of whom got used to getting government benefits," she said. "It is a difficult process but if we want a normal country we must encourage people to work. People can no longer sit at home and do nothing." As the more than 200 protesters chanted "Arabs and Jews are getting poorer on Wisconsin," and other such slogans, many of the program's participants clamored to tell their stories, just happy that someone was finally listening to them. "It is a joke," said Samira Avinadj, 57, from Nazareth. "I have to sit at the center for four hours every day doing nothing, even though I have a letter from the doctor saying I can't work." Reuven Eliyah, 62, from Jerusalem, said he found himself on the program 10 months ago and there is still no sign of a job for him. "They still have not found me any work and they blame me for that," he said. "They sent me to work in the storage room at Hadassah University hospital in Ein Kerem, even though I am a trained electrician." Eliyah said that in the last few months he obtained a recommendation from a psychiatrist that he should no longer be on the program but those running it told him "it is only a recommendation" and they did not have to consider it. Ahmed Barani, from east Jerusalem said that even blindness in one eye does not count as a disability under the plan. "They sent me for an interview in a restaurant," he said, "but the employer did not want me and sent me back to the office. Now they are threatening to take my benefits away, how can I live and support my family on this? I just want us to return to the old program." "They only have 'voluntary' positions and no real work available," said another Jerusalemite participant who preferred to remain anonymous. He added that, his wife, who has no experience at gardening, was sent to work at the Botanical Gardens under the program. Novak, however, said that there are jobs available and those who are not trained in any profession are required to offer community service. She added that those running the program in the four cities could only release participants from the plan based on disability assessments carried out by the NII.