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In Israel, Economy More Scary Than Prospect of Iraqi Missiles

March 18, 2003
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So bad is Israel’s economic situation that some children in the Negev town of Sderot welcomed the Kassam rockets Hamas fired at the town as if they were much-needed rain.

“It’s actually a good thing the rockets hit here,” said a smiling Shiran Avraham, 17, surrounded by a half-dozen tittering teenage girls. “No one would pay any attention to this place without them, and we certainly would not have gotten the benefits of a city on the ‘front line.’ “

Avraham’s statements came just days before Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israelis on Monday that a $6 billion deficit has left state coffers empty. To combat Israel’s economic woes, Netanyahu unveiled a new austerity plan that promises to be as painful as it is drastic.

Last week a rocket missed, by about 30 feet, the Ulpana Girl’s School that Avraham attends in Sderot, a city that suffers both from constant barrages of Kassam rockets and chronic unemployment and poverty.

Avraham, toting a faux designer handbag, was unfazed, like most people in town.

Avraham explained that her family — like most Sderot residents — needs the added benefits allotted to residents of cities the government considers on the “front line.” The benefits include lowered income and land taxes and increased budgets for infrastructure, social services and education.

So important are the benefits in these times of crisis that Mayor Eli Moyel proudly considers his success in securing the benefits just last week as the centerpiece of his tenure as mayor.

As Israel braces itself for an imminent U.S.-led war against Iraq, residents are more concerned about their sagging pocketbooks than about donning gas masks or finding plastic sheeting to seal emergency rooms.

To remedy Israel’s economic implosion, Netanyahu’s plan is designed to cut the ever-decreasing fat in the national budget. If cuts already passed in December 2002 are included, Israel’s per annum budget will be sliced by about $4 billion dollars, or some 8 percent of the total budget.

Every ministry but the Defense Ministry will lose 2 to 3 percent of its budget.

The protracted war with the Palestinians, plus breakneck preparations for a possible attack from Iraq, have sent the defense budget soaring while knocking the economy into recession.

According to Netanyahu’s plan, the public sector will be hit hardest. With a progressive salary cut ranging from 6 percent for low-wage earners to 12 percent for higher earners, no one will be spared.

The plan also reportedly includes mass layoffs, and tens of thousands of public sector employees could lose their jobs in coming years.

Netanyahu has particularly targeted the Education Ministry, reducing the number of administrators and teachers and amalgamating certain positions and authorities. The cuts also will reduce social security and child benefits, while raising the pension age to 67.

Even before the cuts are approved, the country faces a social services gap that some people are trying to fill.

“You see,” said Moshe Levkowitz, director general of “Meir Panim,” Israel’s only chain of soup kitchens, “the State of Israel has no system of soup kitchens.”

Each one, he explains, is independent and ad hoc.

Levkowitz, whose blue eyes, ruddy cheeks and sandy hair give him the appearance of a cherub with a beard, prides his organization for “not only filling their bellies with food, but their hearts with pride.”

Meir Panim, named after founder David Kochmeister’s son Meir, who died of a rare pancreatic disorder at age 13, operates in the fashion of a home-style restaurant.

By keeping its premises clean and “restaurant-like,” it aims to remove any feelings of shame from accepting donated food.

“Because of a policy that requires respect, we get about 40 percent women here. This is totally unprecedented in soup kitchens, where often women feel too ashamed to go,” Levkowitz said.

There are tens of thousands of hungry people in Israel, but not everyone who comes to the soup kitchen is necessarily starving, Levkowitz said.

“Many people are either mentality ill, or have no one who might prepare them a hot lunch,” he said.

Meir Panim, a non-profit inspired and run by fervently Orthodox Jews, has grown tremendously — largely, and unfortunately, due to increasing demand, Levkowitz said.

Meir Panim soup kitchens now feed some 2,500 Israeli adults and 800 students a day in five national centers.

While the organization receives only 6 percent of its funding from the government, 85 percent of Meir Panim’s recipients are referred to its soup kitchens by state social workers.

Funds come from donations, Levkowitz said.

“People will call and say they want to sponsor 10 or five or 100 meals. Others say they have a bed, or a fridge, or an oven, even sewing machines to give away,” he said.

During lunch hour Monday, the day before Purim, the scene was both amusing and surreal. Fervently Orthodox men, joined by Israeli Arab volunteers, acted like stereotypical Jewish mothers, bouncing from table to table cajoling “clients” to eat more and constantly ladling additional food onto people’s plates.

“Take this,” one of the Arab workers said, shoving a loaf of bread into the arms of a homeless man already laden with leftovers.

“But I don’t need it,” the man replied, clutching his take-away soup.

“Just take it, its good for you,” the volunteer responded, still holding the loaf.

Unlike most of Israel’s for-profit businesses, Meir Panim is growing. By the end of the year it is slated to open an additional four branches in Israel’s poorer cities, part of an effort to better serve “periphery cities” like Sderot.

In addition to food, the organization provides legal counsel and medical services twice a week.

But there are many Israelis who fall through the cracks and find themselves unable to take aid even from groups like Meir Panim.

“We represent those people,” slurred Mark Elazar, one of the 30 or so residents of a trash-filled camp called “Bread Square” in Tel Aviv.

The new residents of Bread Square — officially Tel Aviv’s swank “Ha’medina Square” — are a ragtag group of the chronically ill, former addicts and simply the very poor with nowhere else to go.

They live in tents and a pair of abandoned buses, spray-painted with graffiti, that have been there since July.

Elazar was stabbed in the neck in 1982 by an escaped criminal. Since then he has been unable to hold a steady job due to an inability to concentrate.

“I am not stupid, but simply cannot function like everyone else,” he said. “But the government has forgotten me.”

Turning to comrades munching on donated chocolate-covered eclairs, he said, “We don’t want people’s donations. We want to be able to support ourselves.”

The group has refused to leave the area, technically designated as a city park, and has issued rather nebulous demands.

“Something has to change, the government has to recognize our existence,” Elazar said.

Across the street from bakeries catering to Tel Aviv’s most expensive tastes, and stores such as Armani and Polo, lies a refrigerator.

“The fridge is empty — we want work,” reads the sign on its open door.

Back in Sderot, before trotting off with her friends, a world-weary Avraham concluded, “Here it’s all about the bottom line. That is what’s really scary.”

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