Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi was doubly mistaken on Friday in his response to a question during a television interview on Channel 12’s Ophira and Berkovich show.
When asked what he plans to do to help people in Israel who don’t have enough food, he replied: “This nonsense that ‘people have nothing to eat’ is bull***t. There are a million unemployed, most of whom have so far received unemployment benefits – and now we have to get them back to work. There are businesses that have been hit and are in dire straits, but saying ‘there is nothing to eat’ is populism.”
Hanegbi has been an MK for more than 30 years and currently enjoys a ministerial salary for an undetermined job in an overinflated government. He doesn’t understand poverty because he doesn’t experience it.
The ministry-less minister later apologized in a series of tweets, saying: “Unfortunately, in the heat of the debate, I expressed myself in a way that hurt public sentiment. That was not my intention and I take back what I said.”
But it seems he still doesn’t see the problem. The problem isn’t just that he hurt the feelings of the general public: it is that he doesn’t see or understand what the general public is going through.
It is true that, thankfully, people aren’t begging on the streets or dying of starvation, but there are thousands of people – beyond the unemployed – who have had to drastically cut back. And this, in the case of the poorer sectors of society, means cutting back on food, too.
People who do not have an income are struggling, and it’s going to get worse. Those people who postponed mortgage payments, took out loans or dug into savings to tide them over the initial period without income are approaching the time when their savings is running out and the loans need to be paid back. Those who earn less are able to save less. Those on minimum wage are usually unable to save at all, especially if they have the expenses involved in raising children.
The devastating economic impact of the lockdown and measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 are such that extended families are being affected, parents are less able to help adult children and siblings cannot extend a helping hand and a loan.
Instead of the economy now opening up and bouncing back, the country is facing a return to restrictions which will further impact jobs and income. Hardworking citizens have seen their jobs disappear, or the businesses they built up and sacrificed for collapse, without any real hope for recovery.
The pain and suffering and worry are not “bull***t” – They are very real. Indeed, although it is hard to gather concrete statistics, it is clear that the economic suffering is also costing lives.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement on Friday saying: “I know that many have been hurt. I know that many are crying out for help – and I am working for you around the clock and with redoubled energy.”
But Netanyahu’s expressions of empathy fall short. On Passover, families around the country held Seder nights without their extended families, sometimes leaving widowed grandparents to eat alone, then discovering that the prime minister (among other public figures) had violated his own calls for social distancing and celebrated with his son.
Last month, Netanyahu requested and received from the Knesset Finance Committee tax refunds for expenses to the tune of a million shekels for work he did as prime minister at his private home in Caesarea over nine years. Following public uproar, he said the request was justified but “the timing was not right, and for that I am sorry.”
The apologies sound hollow. The national unity government – with a whopping 34 ministers and eight deputy ministers – was ostensibly created to cope with the corona crisis, and that means also the economic catastrophe. Now is not the time for members of the bloated cabinet to dismiss fears, but to remember that it the concerned taxpayer who is paying their wages – to acknowledge and deal with the problems.