Rattling the Cage: Peretz, the morning after

To fight poverty in Israel you need to reach for the stars just to get off the ground.

amir peretz 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
amir peretz 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Maybe it's just my neurotic Jewish way of reacting to good news, but when I heard that Amir Peretz, the guy I've been hoping for years would take over the Labor Party, had taken over the Labor Party, I said to myself, "Yeah, well..." Not that I don't think it's a good thing - I do. More than any other politician with a chance of becoming prime minister, Peretz will try to turn this society around, to fight the greed and callousness that have become the highest "values" in Israeli economic life over the last few years. And that's good. That's necessary. Without a blood-in-the-eyes war on poverty, poverty in this country will go on getting worse, or, at best, stay at its present intolerable level. Somebody has to put the fear of God into the masses of employers who cheat their minimum-wage workers out of salary and benefits. The old and sick have to be given enough money so they can start living decently. The "Wisconsin Plan" has to be implemented in the right way, so the unemployed find suitable jobs, and not in the wrong way, so the unemployed end up with no job and no welfare, either. And somebody has to use his prime minister's prestige to try to shame profitable companies out of firing good employees for the sake of more profit. Somebody has to shame those same companies out of giving multimillion-dollar bonuses to the executives who do the firing. Of all politicians in Israel, Peretz is by far the most committed to achieving these kinds of goals. So he's got my vote. BUT I'M not getting carried away like a lot of his other supporters. And it's not because I'm convinced he's too left-wing to get elected anytime soon, which I am, or even because his belief in Oslo seems to have emerged from the intifada without a scratch, which is a serious problem that I hope he can explain. No, the restraint on my enthusiasm over Peretz's victory has to do exactly with all those great things he stands for: equality, economic justice, social solidarity, an end to poverty. For middle-aged liberals like me - the old-time religion. Unlike Peretz and his more ideological supporters, I don't believe in it anymore. I'd like to. My heart still does. But over the years my head has gotten filled with too much evidence that poverty is a terribly hard nut to crack - even when society brings the best of intentions, intelligence and determination to the cause. FDR's New Deal gave hope to America's poor and put a lot of them to work, but the US didn't get out of the Great Depression until World War II. LBJ's War on Poverty gave many poor people a step up out of the slums, and was vital to the creation of a substantial black middle-class. On balance, though, as the cynics say, America fought a war on poverty and poverty won. On balance, poverty always wins. It's too big and strong and entrenched to be conquered by any government, no matter how liberal. The Bible is right: The poor will always be with us. And here's the most demoralizing part, the part that Peretz's true believers don't want to admit, at least not out loud: More than a few of the poor are themselves to blame for their own condition, and deserve no sympathy. Some of them really don't want to work and really are parasites. For a number of poor people, welfare and social programs and liberalism really are a problem, not a solution. The greedy and callous take the above, hard facts of life and say: "You see? It's all a huge waste of time and money. All these social programs don't help anybody but the parasites. We should stop them all, which would give the parasites an incentive to get out of bed and find work. As for the 'truly needy' - well, private charities work better than any government bureaucracy, and they don't require taxes. And as for labor unions, they're a menace to society, to the economy, and to working people themselves." This is the economic creed of our age, the trend Peretz is up against. In fact, this approach has been tried already - for century after century, until the 20th. It left societies divided into masters and slaves, had people working around the clock for starvation wages, encouraged exploitation and injustice so staggering that today we can't imagine how Western societies allowed them to be. But they did - until the 20th century brought in such radical changes as civil rights, free public services, welfare and social programs, labor laws and labor unions. The liberal reforms of the 20th century didn't end poverty and inequality. But they sure improved Western society over what it was before. This is all I hope Peretz will get the chance to do - defend the reforms of the 20th century against the greedy and callous, against the Netanyahus and other Republican wanna-bes whose approach has left Israel with fewer parasites, but with so many more working poor and truly needy. With hundreds of thousands of hungry old people and hungry children living off soup kitchens. Peretz says that if he's elected, after one year there won't be a single old person or child in this country living in poverty. I don't believe it for a minute, and I don't think he does either. But fighting poverty, especially in Israel today, is so hard that you need to reach for the stars just to get off the ground. You need an evangelist like Peretz preaching the old-time religion not so you can end poverty, which is impossible, but just so you can trim it somewhat. Just so you can begin to turn it around. The messianic age isn't at hand, and it never will be. My heart isn't soaring. But for the first time in a long time, the social democratic cause in Israel has taken a few steps forward. And that's about as good as it gets.