Isreal's Labor and Welfare Ex-Director: Declare War on Youth Delinquency, Poverty, and Domestic Violence
By Gad Nahshon
I met Igal Ben-Shalom, an ex-director of Israel's Ministry of Labor and Welfare at the "Silver Stars", an East-Side Manhattan coffee house. He visited this country as a guest of the University of Pennsylvania, participating in a workshop on the issue of "privatization in the social services."
His paper was a policy perspective on privatization in Israel. It was a rare opportunity for the United States to learn about the social problems and achievements of Israel. As we know the media tends to focus on Israel's politics and the Middle Eastern news. The meeting with Igal Ben-Shalom focused on some of Israel's new domestic issues.
He is a unique public official, who is a true professional and an expert on Israel's social-welfare issues and social security issues. But one must note that Ben-Shalom is a model civil servant with a great sense of integrity. He is a professional with a mission. He has great experience and also has established a successful computer company which he sold before he became an executive director. Ben-Shalom explains, "I dedicated three and a half years to the public. I wanted to challenge Israel's new burning negative social development."
The ex-director is a quiet and modest person. He is the son of a man who has dedicated his life since 1970 to another mission, Ovadiak Ben-Shalom is the founder and president of the Israeli Society, located in Netanya, an organization which promotes and preserves the culture and heritage of the Yemenite Jewry. Indeed inside this family one can find a legacy of both social and cultural missions, a will to serve the public, a will to contribute to the well-being of the Israeli society.
I mention the above facts because Igal Ben-Shalom is a professional who had to stay away from Israeli's overly partisan politics, including inside political wars, conflicts and confrontations. He had to confront major new problems in order to fulfill his mission:
"I'll speak about the urgent issues. First, the Israeli youth. Our youth suffers from the high level of violence inside the Israeli society. Of course, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the high level of national tension has an influence on this youth delinquency. The level of crime of this youth is similar to the European one.
By the way, today we have an awareness of this problem among various sectors which managed to hide it in the past. I mean, for example, the ultra-orthodox sector would like to point out that we have problems in our high schools. And we have 50,000 teenagers who use drugs! I think that we should not use institutions as a solution to these problems. I like to solve it inside the community. We should not isolate the young person who committed a crime.
I support E.L.E.M., this is a society which uses alternative methods in order to save children from becoming criminals. It used a special network of hostels and students who volunteer to help this marginal youth. We must challenge this problem. We need an effective lobby in Israel. We need more awareness to this social problem."
Another burning issue for Ben-Shalom is that of domestic violence and battered women. He believes "this issue was hidden under the carpet for many years. Women, like in the case of a rape, were afraid to complain. Today we live with more openness so women do complain and the public is aware of this new development. Of course, the high level of violence, the non-stop siege of Israel, the non-stop struggles with our enemies have contributed to this level of violence. And of course the high degree of national tension which translated itself into the Israeli family daily life. The outcome of this social reality is among other things the new high rate of divorce in Israel.
For example, in the Tel-Aviv region we record an American Rate or 30%, the rate now of divorce! Of course, this resulting in a disintegration of many Israeli families and its various ramifications."
I inquired as to whether Israel is plagued by one more problem, alcoholism.
Igal responded, "Israel never had a problem of alcoholism. Today we have to face also this new problem." I was also informed by Igal that Israel has to come to grips with other problems in order to help many families which cannot cope with certain burdens. An example of one such problem is that of children with learning disabilities or children who suffer from Down Syndrome.
Recently Israeli media reported on the issue of poverty in Israel. There were even stories about starving children. The Israeli public was shocked by such revelations. And Ehud Barak's government was blamed for such poverty in a country which is being depicted as a modern well-to-do society with a high standard of living and a growing elite or tribe of multi-millionaires (in American dollars). Recently, they are the Horation Algers of the high-tech industry. So we asked Ben Shalom to comment on this issue.
He described how "first, poverty in Israel means 16% of our population or around a million Israelis. Forty percent of these poor people or 400,000 are children. I would like to state, you cannot find a child who starves. They are poor, but they have food. The minimum monthly income of a poor Israeli family of four people is around $1000. Of course, the Israeli social security authority helps these poor families."
I then questioned the demography of poverty in Israel.
"You find poverty among the ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem and Bnai Brak. You find poverty in the peripheral towns such as Kiriat Malachy or Dimona (the South). I must explain that there is a correlation between unemployment and poverty, that's the reason for my fighting to dismantle the state of unemployment in the south. The government together with Rashi Foundation, a philanthropic organization, managed to solve problems and to "shrink" the scope of poverty in the south of Israel. By using method of individual treatment we "rescued" 10,000 children from the entrapment of poverty. It was a great achievement and the course to follow.
Of course, we need an effective lobby in order to eradicate the poverty in Israel," said Ben-Shalom. "By the way, the late Rabin allocated around $500 million in order to challenge poverty and thanks to him we have less poverty in Israel. But today we do not have a plan or a policy which goal is to challenge poverty by all means such as reducing unemployment, capital investments, and by vocational education."
I further inquired into philanthropy in Israel. Ben-Shalom replied, "it is not part of the Israeli mentality. We do not have a tradition of philanthropy. Of course, there are philanthropists in Israel such as the Ted Harrison Foundation and others. But I can see the light in the end of the tunnel! The new Israeli young businessmen. These new multi-millionaires, mostly high-tech ones, do understand the need to contribute to the society. They are doing damage control in the sense that they want to prevent social tension. They want to please by philanthropy the less privileged classes of the Israeli society.
We should involve them directly in our social mission. We need their involvement. So they can help to solve problems and to reduce our social discrepancies. These guys should, at least, adopt their suffering and less advantaged people. They can help to reduce our social gaps as well. Let them espouse a new social mission. They can adopt a community center or hostel, they can help E.L.E.M. They can save the marginal youth from the world of crime."
My last questions to him was regarding the recent Israeli Arab Intifada and whether or not they are Israel's second class citizens. He began, "first, there are poor Arabs. But they do not starve. I can speak as an official we never discriminate them. Arabs are getting budgets like any Israeli. I integrate Arab children into our special project to help children. Their share in our budget was 20%.
I must tell you Arabs refuse to pay municipal taxes. Their mayors tend to complain about the gaps between their population and the Israeli (Jewish one). They want to rely only on the government. But on the municipal level they do not collect taxes. They do not obey laws. Also there are other problems.
They do not understand the concept of civil servant. In my opinion they launched their recent Intifada because of their pro-P.L.O. policy, their nationalism and not because of social issue. Their members of the Knesset cannot produce real facts when they blame Israel for discrimination or even for what they define as an 'apartheid policy' against around a million Israeli Arabs.
I confess to the fact that Arab professionals often cannot get a government job. Why? It is, sad to say, a projection of our Israeli-Arab conflict. It is a security matter. I must also state that the Arab leaders do not care about their poverty: 22% in Israel. They do not press their rich ones to help poor ones. They do not search for investments in order to solve their high level of unemployment. They do not take the initiative. They only wait for the government to serve them and solve their problems.
The Bedoins, for example, are looking today for integration in our modernity. We should help them, we should invest in their economy. We need a project for a "reverse discrimination" a project to integrate 250,000 Bedoins into the 21st Century."
Igal Ben-Shalom, a man with devotion to humanity and social justice. Let us hope that he will return soon to the Israeli civil service so that he will be able to accomplish his mission of creating a healthy Israeli society. Ben-Shalom likes to ride the wave of the future with Israeli social-welfare policy. The term 'privatization' became a magic messiah kind of a slogan or philosophy in Israel. No more welfare state, no more trade unions, no more a shadow of socialism. As Igal Ben-Shalom told me there is a new discussion also in Israel about the privatization of welfare services and even the prisons.
The following are some thoughts about this privatization from Ben-Shalom's vantage point: Israel government decisions about privatization of hostels for the mentally retarded.
( For the last ten years, during its yearly budget deliberations, the Government of Israel decided to privatize hostels for the mentally retarded. But this decision, recurring annually, has remained on paper only. There are more than a thousand workers in the government sector in Israel employed in direct care of the mentally retarded. This number comprises about 25% of the workforce of the Ministry of Labor and Welfare.
This number illustrates that the system has plentiful resources, but they are not being utilized efficiently. There is a high rate of burnout among workers. For example, an aide starts out at age 24 when he is at his peak of strength and physical fitness; by the time he is mature, he is still a caretaker, but no longer with the same physical wherewithal. In light of the rigidity of the governmental bureaucracy and the strength of the Unions and their opposition to privatization, even if it improves the future of the workers, it is impossible at this stage to make the system more efficient.
Privatization of welfare services brings about the development of private and public entities that mediate between governmental funding and the needy populations. Take long term nursing insurance law for the elders, for example. The law on nursing insurance brought about a great expansion in privatization of welfare services and opened a large section of nursing insurance to private entities. A decade after the law went into effect , the way it has been implemented must be re-examined in light of the fact that there are doubts about whether the funds budgeted for services to the elderly actually get to that population or whether they end up somewhere within the bureaucracy or as profits for the private and public companies that were established to provide the services after the law was passed.
When the law was passed, there were about 10,000 elderly who qualified for nursing insurance. Twelve years later, some 100,000 elderly qualify. The law created 40,000 work slots for caretakers in public and private companies that do that kind of work. In light of the low level of the manpower and the unwillingness of many Israelis to work in direct care of the elderly, the importation of foreign workers - especially from the Far East and the Philippines - constituted a new development. There are now about 20,000 foreign workers acting as home-care aides for the infirm elderly.
In another area, that of children and youth, one can find the governmental approach of wishing to retain control, power and management while compromising at the lower level of manpower in hostels and institutions. In Israel there are many institutions for children that are run by public non-profit organizations or private for-profit companies.
In any case, practically their entire funding comes from the government, which appropriates the control, power, supervision and involvement in management of the institutions. There are also examples of purchasing manpower services only. For example, the Youth Protection Authority came to an agreement with the Treasury that it would relinquish manpower slots for counselors in exchange for hiring "temporary" counselors on individual contracts that carry no tenure and are for limited periods. Could that arrangement be called privatization? We think not. That type of arrangement causes all kinds of frustration among experienced counselors and leads to pressure for tenure at the end of the contract period and for consideration as a regular employee anyway.
"Partial" privatization that retains control (and not just funding) has additional ramifications. The private businessman who is responsible for delivering a service is not interested in satisfying the clients, but rather in satisfying the bureaucrats in the civil service. There is therefore, another element essential for successful privatization that should be added: competition. Only when the client can choose which private institution he wishes to got to, with an authorized voucher in hand, will institutions with ah high level of service be in demand and succeed, while institutions with a low level of service will close because of lack of demand. Assuring citizens of freedom of choice in receiving services will prod the system to make better use of resources and bring about increased efficiency in welfare services. Another aspect that must be taken into account when speaking of privatizing welfare services is the need for government to continue to develop models and innovative systems of caring for needy populations. Perhaps in order to attain this goal, it may be necessary to leave a number of institutions in various fields in the hands of the government so that they can serve as a basis for research and development of new ideas."
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