Israel working people hit hard by war with Palestinians
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Thu May 8 08:35:02 MDT 2003
The Independent 6 May 2003
Only soup kitchens are booming in an Israel devastated by the intifada
By Eric Silver in Jerusalem
When Eliahu Bahima started working as head cook at the soup kitchen behind
the glossy Jerusalem central bus station a year and a half ago, he served 50
free lunches a day. Now he is feeding 500 of Israel's poor - unemployed,
homeless, pensioners and immigrants.
"People are having a very hard time," he explained. "They can't manage
As the economy sinks deeper into recession and unemployment is running at
10.3 per cent, the new Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has threatened
to slash welfare benefits and dismiss thousands of public sector workers.
Demand for Mr Bahima's help is growing every week.
The Jerusalem kitchen, one of a voluntary chain of 12 across the country,
also delivers 250 packed lunches a day to the old and infirm. At the
beginning of this year, it began offering evening meals. About 300 hungry
Jews accept the offer every day, in addition to the lunchtime 500.
"Some come with children," Mr Bahima said. "Some take food home for the rest
of the family. There are people around here with 10 kids and no way to feed
Chaim, a veteran tour guide with an unruly grey beard, comes three or four
times a week. Business has been bad for the past 10 years, he says. Since
the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, he has had no work at
At the next table, Yosef, a 68-year-old Ukrainian immigrant in a leather
cap, complained: "It's very hard in Israel." In Kiev, he was a building
engineer. Since migrating 11 years ago, he has been jobless.
Yosef, who speaks Yiddish and Russian but no Hebrew, eats at the kitchen
every weekday. A typical menu features vegetable soup, turkey rissoles with
rice, carrots and peas, followed by fresh fruit.
Apart from the cook, most of the staff are volunteers. A dozen young
soldiers turn up regularly from an army base, serving the meal, then mopping
the floor after the customers have left.
Mr Bahima said: "We get nothing from the government." They buy the food with
private donations raised by support groups.
Soup kitchens used to be the preserve of ultra-Orthodox communities, where
large families are the norm and many of the fathers study into their
thirties and forties. Now they have become a growth industry for secular as
well as religious Jews. Latet, a nationwide charity (its name is Hebrew for
"To give"), supplies foodstuffs to 100 centres. As with the Jerusalem cook,
they report a tenfold increase in demand.
Another soup kitchen, in Beersheba, serves 250 lunches a day and donates hot
meals to run-down inner-city schools. "Whoever comes, gets," said Shmuel
Litmanovitch, a volunteer supervisor. "No questions asked."
One in five Israeli families, Jewish and Arab, lives below the poverty line.
The economy, which grew by 6 per cent a year in the 90s, is in its third
year of negative growth. Bank of Israel researchers predict that
unemployment will continue to climb, reaching 12 per cent with 305,000 in
the dole queue by the end of the year.
Mr Netanyahu's proudly Thatcherite economic rescue plan is marking time,
with the trade unions accusing him of robbing the poor to feed the rich.
They are threatening to stage a summer of industrial discontent.
Government economists, who tended to blame the world recession, now
acknowledge the role played by the security crisis. Tourists, Israel's main
source of foreign currency, have stayed away.
The swift and, for Israel, painless overthrow of Saddam Hussein, as well as
the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as the first Palestinian Prime Minister,
have rekindled hope of economic recovery. The shekel is rising against major
currencies. The depressed Tel Aviv stock exchange is bouncing back.
Israeli cities already feel safer. Israel's pre-emptive strategy of taking
the battle to the bombers reduced the number of suicide attacks there from
40 in the first quarter of 2002 to five in the same period this year.
As foreign investors trickle back, they - like everyone else - are waiting
to see whether peace really is around the corner.
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