Here and There: Mind the gap – Part 2

If life in Israel is so good, why is it so bad?

Money cash Shekels currency 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Money cash Shekels currency 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
As I write this article, our country is facing a barrage of rockets from Gaza – this time reaching deep into Israel.
Yes, we have serious problems stemming from the fact that our country is surrounded by too many who would like to see our demise. However, this is not the primary reason given by many who have chosen to leave Israel and live elsewhere.
Last year Adina Siperman wrote a moving article in The Jerusalem Post on why she is leaving the Jewish state. Having made aliya from Canada some four years ago, she has enjoyed her time in Tel Aviv – marrying and finding work – but what she has not found is a secure economic future. Adina believes that as long as she and her husband remain here, it will not be possible for them – however much they scrimp and save – to afford a family home.
I have personally heard this story repeated many times. More than half a million Israelis live abroad, choosing the US, Canada and Europe (with a strong preference for Berlin among those aged 30 to 49). Their primary reason for leaving: Getting ahead economically.
For all intents and purposes, Israel looks – to the outside world – to be a prosperous, economically thriving country. Indeed, Standard and Poor’s recent analysis stated that Israel has a per-capita annual income of more than $38,000, which is expected to grow to almost $42,000 by 2017. We are seen as the “Silicon Valley” of the Middle East, with our hi-tech and R&D contributing greatly to this positive report.
Certainly, when holidaymakers come to Israel – enjoying Tel Aviv and Herzliya Pituah’s great beaches, restaurants and entertainment, and viewing the number of luxury cars on the road – can they think otherwise? Then, a trip to Poleg and South Beach in Netanya causes one to gasp at the number of magnificent skyscrapers being built along the coastline.
So if it is so good, why is it so bad? The answer is to be found in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s report, ”Society at a Glance 2014.”
It found that Israel has the highest poverty rate among member countries, at 20.9 percent – virtually double the OECD average of 11.3%. One of the contributing factors is that Israel is fifth among countries with the largest income inequality ratings, following the US, Mexico, Chile and Turkey; 1.7 million Israelis live below the poverty line – or 439,500 families, with 817,200 children.
There are those who would argue that the above figures are due to the haredim, who do not work and have very large families requiring support. This is true – an average of 59% of haredim live below the poverty line, compared to 14% of the general population. A similar situation can be found in the Arab sector, where some 54% are experiencing the same phenomenon.
There is yet another group experiencing poverty, as the Ethiopian community faces considerable economic and social challenges. One need only visit the Ethiopian “ghetto” in Heftziba, Netanya, to appreciate the economic and social problems this population faces. While the English-Speaking Residents Association (ESRA), working with the Netanya Municipality, is making inroads and will be increasing its programs in the area, there is still a long way to go before our Ethiopian brothers and sisters feel they have reached equality with the general population.
However, this is not where the story ends. Let’s cast our minds back to the “summer of discontent” exactly three years ago in July 2011, when some 150,000 young people took to the streets and, as the weeks went by, the number more than doubled. In terms of protesters, we are not talking about the poor and impoverished, we are talking about young, middle-class yuppies. Thousands marched with their baby carriages, not only because Israeli cottage cheese was found to be twice the price of the product sold in New York – but because baby products and childcare are too expensive for the average young couple.
These couples also desire better education for their children – not 40 pupils in one class. Moreover, young working mothers experience difficulty in finding jobs that take into account the allowances required of their dual role (job and parenting).
THE ISSUES that led to the mass protest of 2011 still exist today. The cost of living remains out of all proportion to what Israelis are earning. The prices in Israeli supermarkets are way above markets, for example, in the UK.
Why? The answer: Lack of competition.
When large corporations like Tnuva and Strauss “agree” on price hikes and are basically running the whole of the dairy industry in this country, this is not good news for the consumer. When 13 agricultural lobbies such as the Honey Production and Marketing Board and the Dairy Board agree on raised prices, this is a cartel calling the tune.
We cannot continue to allow the economy to be in the hands of cartels, which stifle competition and are driving out our tomorrow.
For example, my daughter-in-law lives in London, but has a home in Jerusalem where she and her family come for the festivals. There was a time, some years ago, that she would buy all of her children’s clothes while in Israel. Not so today – it is far cheaper to buy their clothes in the UK. Similarly, I like to buy certain sandals while in London. When I could not visit for a year or so, I found the same sandals here in Israel – but was shocked to discover they cost three times as much.
Nevertheless, the major factor of complaint was – and remains – the lack of affordable starter homes for the young middle class, who see themselves as the backbone of this country. This is the population that serves in the army and pays taxes, yet they find a high proportion of their salary goes to rentals or mortgage repayments. Perhaps those who can afford to buy a property, even with a heavy mortgage, are the lucky ones.
There are today far too many young couples who cannot foresee a time when they will be able to own their own property.
Yes, there is an amazing amount of building of new apartments going on in Israel, but not of apartments that either students or young couples can afford to buy or rent.
Surely the moment has come to introduce social housing as part of new building ventures.
This concept has proven itself in the UK, where a developer will be given permission to build new apartments on the condition that a proportion is devoted to social housing. Schemes bringing together government, the local authority and the developer create both housing for rental and purchase that is affordable.
Israel is a great country that has achieved so much in its 65 years of existence – succeeding in producing Nobel Prize winners out of all proportion to its numbers, and becoming a world leader in the field of R&D. Our future depends on the next generation – we simply cannot afford to lose our young people to other countries.
We should and must do everything possible to encourage them to remain here. Let’s hope someone is listening – it’s time to close the gap!
The writer is chairwoman of ESRA, Israel’s largest English-speaking volunteer organization.