Chelm in the Negev

A tale of modern Israeli foolishness.

The following saga, on multiple levels, constitutes a tale of modern Israeli foolishness of the sort often ascribed to the denizens of Jewish folklore’s mythical hamlet, Chelm.
In the year 2000, a small garment manufacturing shop ceased its operations in the hard-luck Negev town of Mitzpeh Ramon. It was no longer viable and couldn’t compete with Far Eastern rock-bottom wages.
But that non-too-unusual occurrence sparked a revolt by the mostly female employees, who barricaded themselves in the factory until they had managed, improbably, to secure an agreement to keep the failing enterprise afloat as their own cooperative, which they significantly renamed Mitperet Atzmaut (Independence Sewing Shop).
Ever since, it has been buttressed by government loans, subsidies and constant favors from the IDF, which grudgingly allows a small portion of its uniforms to be sewn there at higher cost than in China, the source for most of what our soldiers wear.
The cooperative’s precarious, against-the-odds survival defies economic common sense. That didn’t prevent the women who took the factory over from becoming local culture heroines. A much-ballyhooed full-length documentary celebrated their pluck. They were paraded as proof that socialism and cooperatives could still thrive.
In all, the cooperative offers jobs to 54 women – 43 from Mitzpeh Ramon (where they comprise a full 1% of the workforce) and 11 others from Dimona and Yeroham. The scarcity of job opportunities can be gauged from the fact that Dimona’s unemployment rate is 14.5%, almost twice the national average. The governments who kept propping up this cooperative for years evidently either thought it a fitting cause or were too timid to admit otherwise.
Now, however, the cooperative has announced that the Dimona/Yeroham residents are about to be sacked, because the government won’t foot the bill for these workers’ travel expenses. That would mean an annual outlay of NIS 150,000 –less than a drop in the bucket in the bigger budgetary scheme.
This is shaping up as the next big cause célèbre for assorted social activists. One transport entrepreneur has offered to give the women free rides for three months if they are reinstated forthwith and their travel expenses paid from the public coffers thereafter.
Here is where we arrive in Chelm territory.
There was, sadly, no sense to begin with in prolonging the error, rooted in the 1950s, of anchoring the economies of numerous development towns around plants that were doomed from the outset, even pre-globalization, and which needed artificial resuscitation post-globalization. This was akin to harking back to a 19th-century economic pattern in the 21st century.
The counter-argument is that the workers need the work, live arduous lives in the outlying periphery and lack the skills for high-tech. But if that is the case, then why commit the follow-up Chelm blunder and now deny, to what is acknowledged as a social welfare make-work project, the additional minuscule budgetary allotment that would finance the workers’ travel expenses (and would cost less than unemployment benefits)?
THERE IS far too much illogic here, with one set of bungles exacerbating another. Moreover, it is not only the fate of one individual plant that is at stake.
There is a fundamental need to ponder the future of other such labor-intensive enterprises that somehow still dot the country’s more remote areas. Many have closed and others were moved by their owners to lands where pay is so low that our minimum wage appears excessive and uncompetitive in comparison.
What is mandated is sober reevaluation, rather than populist zeal tostrike a purported victory for the working woman. To begin with, inthis specific case, the government must strenuously repress itsagora-wise and shekel-imbecilic proclivities. A paltry outlay for busfares won’t break the bank.
Beyond that there must be clear-headed awareness that certain plants,which haven’t yet expired or relocated, chiefly subsist at thetaxpayer’s expense and protract the original misconception that broughtthem into the world and kept them going for decades.
Rescuing hopeless enterprises may promise political popularity points,but in the long run it deludes a new generation of employees and sucksthem into a situation where their livelihood sadly depends on floggingdead horses.
The long-term solution lies primarily in improving publictransportation so that residents of relatively remote areas can quicklyand efficiently reach the country’s economic hubs, and thereby accessgreater earning opportunities.
In tiny Israel, this is no great stretch.