Saturday, 5 July 2014

Israel's Other Security Problem

Talking about the threats to Israel's security usually means talking about terrorist groups like Hamas or rogue states like Iran that want to wipe the country off the map.  But there is another security problem that gets little mention in the media outside of Israel itself: Israel's social security problem, or in other words, its poverty.  In fact, the international media often mask this problem by talking about how much of an economic miracle Israel is.  It's not that this assertion isn't true.  Yes, Israel is a great economic miracle where deserts have been turned into vast fields of crops, modern cities have been built and great achievements in science and technology have been made.  Nevertheless, Israel, like any other country, still has poverty and this poverty is endangering the future of the state.

Some Grim Statistics on Israel's Poverty

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Israel has the highest rate of poverty in the developed world.  More than one in five Israelis is considered poor, whereas the OECD average is just 11.3%.  One out of every three children in Israel also lives in poverty. 

The poverty rate in Israel is particularly high in two particular groups of citizens: Arabs and Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews).  In fact, more than one in two Arab and Haredi citizens lives in poverty.  Researchers attribute the high poverty rate amongst Israeli Arabs mainly to the low number of Israeli Arab women who work.  According to statistics, less than one third of Israeli Arab women work.  And although the number of Arab men who work is similar to the number of Jewish men who are employed, the wages of the former are significantly lower.  In the Haredi sector, less than half of Haredi men are gainfully employed.  And since Arabs and Haredim are more inclined, on average, to have more children than other Israelis, poverty has become more concentrated amongst Israeli families with many children.

To make a long story short, Israel may be an economic success story in many respects, but as in many other emerging economies, like China and India, the rising tide has not lifted all the boats - or at least it has lifted some very high while not lifting others high enough.  So how should Israel go about alleviating the poverty within its borders?  Here are some of my suggestions:

1.  Arab Women and Haredi Men Must be Encouraged to Join the Workforce

I never like to blame the victim, but I will say in all honesty that certain people who are not involved in the workforce need to consider getting involved if they want to climb out of poverty.  I am specifically referring to Arab women and Haredi men.  Both groups are under-represented in the workforce for cultural and religious reasons.  The idea that a woman's place is in the home still prevails amongst Israel's Arab citizens and in the Arab world as a whole.  Clearly, Israel's government needs to take steps to encourage its female Arab citizens to work.  The same goes for Haredi men, who would rather devote themselves to their faith than to an actual job.  The problem of unemployment amongst Haredi men has actually gotten worse over time.  In fact, before the 1980s, nearly 90% of Haredi men were employed as opposed to less than half today.  Why?  Some researchers say that it is because Haredi political parties have gained more power over time and have pushed for more aid to the Haredi sector in the form of subsidies, housing and exemption from military service.  As a result, more and more Haredi men have decided to live off of government assistance rather than seek gainful employment.  This coddling of the Haredim has angered many other Israelis, including myself.  Many of the Haredim think they don't live in the real world, but rather God's world, in which the only contribution they need to make is in the form of study and prayer.  But in fact, they do live in the real world and they must understand that in the real world, people must work to earn a living and contribute to society.  Of course, if we do want Arab women, Haredi men, or anyone else in Israeli society to be gainfully employed, we need to make sure that they have the right skills, hence the need for improvements to education.

2.  Educational Reforms

Ironically, researchers have indicated that despite Israel's history of scholarship and its world-renowned academic institutions, education is an area in which the country needs to improve immensely if it is to tackle the problem of poverty.  The problems in Israel's education system are not unlike those faced by education systems in Canada or any other industrialized country - issues like overcrowded classrooms, under-performing teachers, high university tuition and lack of financial resources.  These problems, like Israeli poverty, are more pronounced in the Arab and Haredi sectors.  Arab students are less likely to graduate from high school than their Jewish counterparts.  They are also forced to deal with a very Jewish-centric curriculum in which they do not see themselves, thus providing a disincentive for them to continue their education.  Changes to the Israeli Arab school curriculum that would allow Arab students to learn more about their own history and heritage without negating the State of Israel's right to exist would significantly improve their educational and employment prospects.  I would also recommend founding at least one university in the country in which Arabic is the main language of instruction, thus making it easier for Israeli Arab students to learn without language difficulties.  One good thing I can say about the Arabic education system in Israel today is that at least students are taught the proverbial "three r's".

In contrast, the only three r's that many Haredi students are taught are religion, religion and religion.  Math and science don't see the light of day in many Haredi schools, yet Haredi politicians insist that the Israeli government fund them.  This obviously has to end if Haredi men are going to have any chance of entering the workforce in the future.  Funding should only go to schools that teach practical subjects, whether they be Haredi schools or otherwise.  And more funding for education in general will be needed if Israel wants to reduce the number of its citizens who live in poverty.  That being said, more funding for education will probably mean less funding for other things, so how should Israel's government prioritize?

3.  Prioritizing and Reallocating Resources

Israel, unlike most other countries, has the misfortune of having to allocate a large part of its budget to defense.  This is not going to change until the country no longer faces an existential threat.  However, there are still things that Israel spends money on that would be better spent elsewhere.  One example that comes to mind is the government's recent splurge on Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.  Much of this spending is simply unavoidable as these communities have unique security needs.  However, there is a growing sense amongst Israelis that much of this spending lacks transparency and is being undertaken to placate the ideological ambitions of certain politicians and interest groups.  See, for example: MKs Push for Transparency on Rising Settlement Funding

The fact of the matter is that a lot of money is being spent to encourage Israelis to move to the newer communities in Judea and Samaria, and although I believe that Israelis should be entitled to live in their ancestral homeland, I think many Israelis would prefer that this kind of spending be dedicated to things like health care and education for all Israeli citizens, regardless of where they live.  Still, I certainly would not like to see Israeli tax dollars being spent to uproot Israelis from their homes in Judea and Samaria as was done in Gaza, because doing so would not only be wrong, but expensive (see: Removing West Bank Settlers Would Cost $10 Billion: Peace Group)

Another big expense that should be reallocated is the large sum of money given every year to Haredi citizens and institutions so that they don't have to work and instead devote themselves to full-time prayer and study.  As I said before, we live in the real world where people must work to live.  If the Israeli government continues to pay the Haredim to pray and study all day, they will never have any incentive to join the workforce and poverty in the Haredi sector will persist.

The Carrot and Stick Approach to Poverty Alleviation

Alleviating poverty in Israel or anywhere else almost always depends, not only on giving, but also taking away.  To be more specific, I recommend giving more funding to education in Israel, but I also recommend taking away the generous subsidies that the Haredim have enjoyed for many years.  The reason is that sometimes throwing money at a problem can make it better, but sometimes it can make it worse.

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