May 26, 2006

Discriminating against poor Arab children

Here's a quirky article in Ha'aretz. It exposes Israel's latest scam to discriminate against Arabs by force of its laws but then expresses support for the system that makes the discrmination possible.
The emerging coalition agreement between Kadima and United Torah Judaism includes one very strange element: The offered allotment of NIS 500 to families with four or more children will not be given to families that receive income maintenance payments from the National Insurance Institute. That is really a puzzle: Why should a payment intended for poor families with many children be denied to the very poorest families, those that receive income maintenance payments? After all, these are the very children who need the money most, and the child allowances that these families receive have been slashed sharply in recent years. And if the idea is that those who already receive substantial payments from the state should not get any additional funds, why should only those who receive income maintenance from the NII suffer, and not those who receive income maintenance payments from the Education Ministry?

And here is the solution to the puzzle: There are two types of families with many children in Israel - Arab and ultra-Orthodox (Haredi). The Arab families, if they need income maintenance payments, receive the ordinary NII stipend as long as they meet the criterion of proven inability to support themselves - in other words, if the parents cannot work or are unable to find work.

Haredi men, however, spend most of their parental years studying in yeshiva rather than in the job market. Therefore, they cannot meet the criterion of proven inability to support themselves. The state therefore found a way to pay stipends to avrechim (married yeshiva students) while bypassing the NII. In the past, the stipends were paid by the Religious Affairs Ministry; today, they come from the Education Ministry. Some 10,000 Haredi avrechim receive some NIS 950 every month. The sum is paid to any avrech with at least three children, regardless of the size of the stipend he receives from his yeshiva, as long as he (and his wife) earn no more than NIS 700 a month outside the yeshiva. In other words, this is essentially a stipend that encourages women not to work, or to work under the table.

This, therefore, is the meaning of the emerging agreement between UTJ and the coalition: Poor Arab families with many children will not receive the new payment (though wealthier Arab families actually will). But Haredi families with many children will receive it. Arab children will not benefit, but Haredi children will. It is impossible not to ask what exactly the people who reached this brilliant agreement were thinking. One can perhaps attribute the following cynical approach to Finance Ministry officials: The High Court of Justice will strike down the arrangement in any case, and then perhaps we will not have to make these payments. It is even possible to assume that some of the participants in the negotiations told themselves: "Why not try? At worst, the gambit will fail." What is impossible to understand is how they can live with themselves.

We used to have a child allowance that discriminated in favor of Jews. It was called the allowance for people who served in the army. As long as it was truly earmarked for former soldiers, it had a certain moral logic, even if it was also controversial. But as time passed, more and more Haredi families managed to obtain this stipend thanks to relatives who had served in the army, and in practice, the stipend became an allowance for Jews only. It was canceled in the mid-1990s. The idea of instituting an allowance for everyone except for poor Arab families undoubtedly sets a new record for creativity, chutzpah and shamelessness: discriminating against a child because he is Arab and poor.

The time has come for even Israeli politicians to understand: In a democratic country, there is no way to encourage birthrates among one ethnic group while discriminating against the children of another ethnic group. The demographic balance is indeed important, but equality is much more important. True, a person cares most about those closest to him, and the Jewish state prefers Jews by its very nature. It has many clever ways in which to express this preference, and it exploits them to the hilt. But at least on the official, declarative level, it must be clear that all children are equal: All poor children are equal, and all hungry children are equal - even if they are Arabs.
The complaint here seems to be that Israel is making its racism too obvious.


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