Israeli Poverty Is Real — and Must Be Addressed

The predominately haredi Israeli community of Bnei Brak. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Israel is a leader in science and technology, which is something that all Israelis should be proud of. The Jewish state is also, however, a leader in poverty amongst countries of the industrialized world, which is something that Israelis should certainly not be proud of.

In fact, Israel’s poverty rate is among the highest of all OECD countries. According to the National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi), about one in five Israelis live below the poverty line. This poverty is especially obvious amongst the country’s children and seniors, two of the most vulnerable sectors of society. How did this happen? And why are so many Israelis living below the poverty line?

The reasons are multiple. For one thing, the cost of living in Israel is extremely high and a lot of Israelis simply don’t have the purchasing power to afford even basic necessities, let alone the luxuries that many of us take for granted. During the winter, for example, many Israelis have to choose between heating or eating. This is not a choice anyone should have to make.

Another reason is that Israel has to spend a disproportionate amount of money defending itself from its many enemies. If not for the security situation, the Jewish state would have billions more shekels to fund social programs and help the indigent. I’m sure that most of Israel’s politicians would prefer to spend taxpayers’ money to give more financial aid to the poor, rather than spending it on new anti-missile systems and blowing up terrorist tunnels. But alas, Israel’s very existence is still under threat, and as long as that is the case, Israel will have to continue spending large sums of money defending itself.

Poverty doesn’t affect all sectors of Israeli society the same way. As I already mentioned, children and seniors make up a large portion of Israel’s poor people. Nearly one in three Israeli children live below the poverty line, as do about one in five seniors. But poverty is also concentrated among certain other groups in society: It is highest among the country’s Arab and Haredi citizens. Almost half of Israeli Arabs are poor, as are more than 40 percent of all Haredim.

The former make up a disproportionate number of Israel’s poor in large part because Arabs simply have less job opportunities available to them in their communities, and may also be victims of discrimination when they apply for work. In addition, many Arab women are discouraged from seeking employment for cultural reasons.

Many of the Haredim are poor because they don’t have jobs.

Among the Haredim that are not employed, most of them are engaged in full-time religious study and are discouraged by their community from seeking gainful employment. According to the Ministry of Labor, only about half of Haredi men are employed. This number is higher for Haredi women, with about three quarters of them employed, which is very close to the national average. Haredim also have much fewer job prospects than other Israelis because they lack education. Many Haredi children growing up in Israel today don’t even learn subjects that are part of the core curriculum for most other Israeli children, such as math and science.

Israel clearly needs to do more to help the poor climb out of poverty, and prevent people that are close to the poverty line from reaching it or going below it. But how? I think the logical solution would be to focus poverty alleviation strategies on the sectors that are most prone to being poor: children, seniors, Arabs, and Haredim.

Above all, there should be a focus on education, as it is usually the best way to combat poverty. More education means more employment opportunities and higher wages. For starters, more Haredi schools need to teach the core curriculum, because without basic skills like math, no Israeli citizen, Haredi or otherwise, can expect to be gainfully employed.

Israel also needs to raise the quality of education for all pupils in the country, especially in the Haredi and Arab sectors. In many cases, there is little to no oversight for schools that Haredi children attend, and no standardized testing for them either. It’s as if Haredi schools have become the Wild West of the Israeli educational system. Students in Israel’s Arab schools consistently score lower on standardized tests than their Jewish counterparts. Israel needs to invest more money in Arab schools to improve their standards.

In addition, the state needs to make it easier for Arab students to go on to post-secondary education by establishing a university in which Arabic is the primary language of instruction. There is currently no Arab university in Israel, so Israeli Arabs wishing to attend university inside the country must learn in Hebrew, putting them at a disadvantage because it is more difficult to learn in your second language than it is to study in your native tongue.

When Israel’s leaders finally do manage to put a new government together, reducing poverty will hopefully be a priority right alongside maintaining the country’s security. Indeed, some would argue that protecting Israelis from going hungry or being homeless is just as important as defending them from missiles and terrorists.

Jason Shvili is a freelance writer in Toronto, Canada.

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