This column was originally published in full in the print edition of TheMarker
Rabbi Idit Lev brings up the remarks of the Director-General of the Ministry of Social Affairs about hunger in Israel as characteristic of how people think about the economy
Mr. Yossi Silman, the Director-General of the Ministry of Social Affairs, recently commented on hunger in Israel in a way that makes the situation seem normal and expresses acceptance of this problematic phenomenon. There are hungry people, he said, but none of them develop a distended belly and no one dies from it, not like in other countries – meaning Third World Countries, which Israelis don’t compare themselves to at all.
This unfortunate statement at least bears some honesty: that the officials who run our economy and our government are promoting a socioeconomic system whose practical outcome is that some of our population will always be hungry. Just as unemployment has become the “thorn in the side” that comes with neoliberalism, so too is hunger now inevitably the fate of some of our children and our adults.
Many people focused on attacking Silman over this remark. Indeed this statement reflects a terrible insensitivity which has no place amongst director-generals of government ministries, or among anyone working for the Ministry of Social Affairs. But focusing on the man hides the system. The acceptance of a lack of food security amongst a certain percentage of the population is not characteristic of one person, Yossi Silman, but of the whole socioeconomic system promoted by Israel’s governments in recent years. Some people, with a typically Israeli click of the tongue, will dismiss this and say that the phenomenon of hunger shocks them, but then will advance policies which ensure or even expand hunger. But there are others who, like Mr. Silman, that that’s just how life is, that the situation isn’t so bad.
At Rabbis for Human Rights’ Rights Center in Hadera, we do not take a lunch break without extra inventory, so that in the event that someone enters through our door, we will be able to give him a meal. This is a fundamentally humane and Jewish act, one of empathy and solidarity. And beyond this: it’s simply hard to eat when there is someone hungry beside you – it’s a matter of basic instinct. Overcoming this instinct requires an entire system which separates the hungry and the poor from those who are well-fed.
The hunger that exists in Israel is an outcome of an economic system
Indeed, the hunger that exists in Israel is an outcome of an economic system, in a nod to major entrepreneurs, which weakens workers whose salary is often not enough to buy the bear necessities and which doesn’t even aspire towards full employment. The other side of the coin is that this same system also reduces stipends to those who can’t find work to sustain themselves in the job market shaped by the system. Between the man-power companies which weaken workers and the credit rating companies which protect corporations, growth is seen as something designed to serve macroeconomic data and not the general public. In this atmosphere, even hunger among a certain percentage of the population is a small price to pay. The logic of what is called “macroeconomic efficiency” forgoes all human emotions and moral feelings.
Silman’s position can be understand in all its sharpness in the following quote of his: “There is no doubt that the States of Israel has reached a critical point in which it needs to ask how much it invests in growth and how much it invests in social welfare. Everyone wants more towards welfare, but the state could collapse if we do not invest in economic growth. I certainly support…cutbacks to government stipends.” In Silman’s world, it seems that there are only two options. But data from around the world shows that there is another one. Most of the equitable states in the world, with intelligent social policies, also do better than Israel in statistics like per capita GDP and level of debt as a percentage of GDP. And they don’t even suffer from excessive unemployment.
Sealing yourself off from moral sentiments is not even rational; it is a form of worshipping a system which allows any morally unrestrained action towards people living in poverty. The prophet Isaiah tells us about the Yom Kippur fast: “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” (58:7-8). Perhaps this admonition will come to fruition in our days, even into the hearts of our government officials.
Rabbi Idit Lev is the head of the Social Justice Department at Rabbis for Human Rights.