Middle Israel: Whose poverty is it, anyway?

We have come a long way since economist and philosopher Herbert Spencer unabashedly attacked the very idea of charity.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
We have come a long way since economist and philosopher Herbert Spencer unabashedly attacked the very idea of charity. "What can be a more extreme absurdity than that of proposing to improve social life by breaking the fundamental law of social life?" asked in his Principles of Ethics, that great proponent of social Darwinism. Nature, he believed, did not mean for society's haves to support its have-nots. Nature actually weeds out "those of lowest development" while subjecting the rest "to the never-ceasing discipline of experience." Stepping in between ignorance and its consequences, concluded the man who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," was impossible without suspending progress itself. Fortunately, humanity has since traveled a long way and such nonsense has become unacceptable even on Wall Street. A humbled capitalistic world came to understand, first in the wake of the Great Depression, then in the course of World War II, that social solidarity was no less a business interest than a moral value. And so the pension commitment first pioneered in 19th-century Germany by Bismarck later evolved into the prewar quest to quash unemployment and finally culminated in the postwar European pretension to altogether finance the needy through the so-called "cradle to grave" social safety net. TO JUDAISM, few things could be more of an anathema than social Darwinism. There never was Jewish time, place, or even a single dissenting school of thought where this sort of philosophical cannibalism was entertained. The Israelites were told plainly, back when they were still landless paupers in the middle of the Sinai, that when they would eventually accumulate wealth, they would be expected to share it with the needy. Yes, centuries later the prophets had to remind our forebears that charity is more important than ritual. Yet even then, the value of giving was merely forgotten rather than inverted, as it was in the writings of Spencer or in the town of Sodom. If anything, Jewish thinkers were so pro-charity that they were anti-wealth. For instance, even at a time when Calvinism was arguing that human wealth is a sign of divine blessing, Rabbi Ephraim of Lenczyca (1550-1619) argued that the rich should see in their fortune little more than a divine deposit, one that God intended for them to share with the poor. Sounding a bit like Amir Peretz, he wrote that the rich are "on the whole" violent, arrogant and extravagant, and are out to impose their sway on an already oppressed Jewish people. Not only was wealth not God's blessing, he wrote, it was by nature the result of injustice, reflected an acquiescence of Exile, and barred its owners from climbing the rungs of purity. Can it be, then, that just when the Jews finally left Exile, they became as heartless as Rabbi Ephraim's arrogant rich, or worse, as cruel as Spencer's social Darwinists, or worse yet, the jungle creatures portrayed this week by assorted academic, political and bureaucratic neo-socialists as they descended on the latest Poverty Report like a flock of bald eagles on a fat cow's corpse? THE REPORT'S dry figures are indeed disturbing. With the rise by 46,000 people of the statistically defined poor population - those with a monthly income lower than NIS 1,805 per person and NIS 4,619 per family of four - the overall number of poor people has reached 1.58 million, the number of poor households has risen to 430,000, and the number of poor children is now 738,000. In typical hysteria, Yediot Aharonot judged the report, in a news headline, "grave," Deputy Welfare Minister Avraham Ravitz decried the government's "failed" poverty record, and National Insurance Institute director-general Yigal Ben-Shalom attributed the report's findings to the Sharon government's reforms. The latter, who happens to also be this semi-annual report's sponsor, found nothing the matter with being simultaneously the national welfare policy's judge, witness, and executioner. We do. The NII's business is about managing what funds the public, through its elected officials, allocates for welfare. If Ben-Shalom wants to dispute these allocations he can run for public office and wage his war there. Until then, he should be told that his attack on the government's welfare policies is the equivalent of a uniformed general publicly challenging the prime minister for, say, not attacking Iran. Ben-Shalom's lamentations are not only insubordinate, but also sinister, considering that what he offers as the situation's remedy - a restoration of slashed allowances - boils down to an expansion of his own budget, and a regression to what has been proven empirically as both unaffordable and unworkable. More importantly, the report's gravity is debatable. First, in terms of trends that a 46,000-person increase is actually negligible, since in percentage terms it merely represents the difference between 23.6 and 24.1. Secondly, the tendentious NII's surveys are merely based on people's verbal descriptions of their own condition. Obviously, those out to get state money conceal the untaxed sources of income which constitute our sprawling parallel economy. But most crucially, every kid knows that Israel's poor are predominantly Arab and ultra-Orthodox - two groups that share a disdain for family planning and self-fulfillment. That is why there are so many children among the poor, and that is why Jerusalem, the only Israeli city where most dwellers are either ultra-Orthodox or Arabs, is by far Israel's poorest city, with one in three of its families, and more than half its children, languishing under the poverty line. It follows that the number of our poor will start dropping when Arab and ultra-Orthodox leaders engage less in attacking and milking the Jewish state, and more in preaching the merits of productivity, self-fulfillment and family planning. The problem we face is not budgetary but cultural, and as such will hardly be solved by us - the world's most heavily taxed middle class - trusting even more of our hard-earned shekels to Ben-Shalom's handout machine. It takes a lot of nerve for him and Rabbi Ravitz to imply that the people who spend years in military service and then decades in reserve duty while working day and night to house, feed and educate their children so they can meet modernity's challenges and simultaneously finance an elaborate welfare system that supports those who will not serve or work - are still not doing enough to ensure that Ravitz's, Abdel Malik Dehamshe's and Taleb a-Sanaa's constituents can work less and breed more. Maybe the social Darwinists here are not those who already pay more than any other middle class to foot the poor's bills, but those who mass-produce those poor in the first place? Maybe, Rabbi Ravitz, it is not government that has failed in its policies, but you?