Single mother Ronit is one of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who rely on food handouts for her family’s survival.
When the 37-year-old from Tel Aviv lost her job as a secretary three years ago, her family slid into poverty, surviving off just 1,000 shekels (US $250) a month after paying rent and bills. She does not get alimony from her ex-husband and is unwilling to claim it through the courts because non-payment could see him jailed.
“I’m just like you – I had dreams and a home. But after my divorce and being laid off I was left to care for my family almost completely on my own. I went to dozens of interviews but I suspect being a single mother was not considered an asset by potential employers,” said the mother-of-three.
“At first we lived off unemployment benefits from the state and then we began to receive a small monthly pension. I cut back on everything: after-school activities, phone, dental care, all leisure activities, new clothes - anything beyond rent and bills.
“Last year, I couldn’t bear it anymore – the fridge was empty. I called the local state social worker who referred me to an NGO called LATET. Now their weekly food package is what we eat. I'm still trying to find a job.”
About 200,000 Israeli families – 11 per cent of the population – rely on 200 NGOs for their daily meals, according to LATET and Israel’s Ministry of Social Affairs. Some NGOs run soup kitchens in poor neighbourhoods while others collect food from private and corporate donors and distribute it to the needy.
But NGOs say their strong response is counter-productive because it encourages the Israeli government to do less to help its more vulnerable citizens.
State must take responsibility
“The state must take responsibility for the food security of its citizens. The situation of citizens depending on the kindness of private donors must end. NGOs can help the state in organisation and distribution, but the state cannot neglect its citizens,” Eran Weintraub, LATET’s general manager, said.
“Already, many NGOs cannot cope with the growing number of needy families. We are not funded by the state in any way and our contact with social services is one-way only – they refer more and more families to us.”
At a distribution centre in Petach Tikva, a middle-class city of 180,000 residents near Tel Aviv, the last food packages containing basic products such as cooking oil, sugar, coffee, tea, sweets, cookies and rice are snatched up by those waiting in line, anxious at the sight of the diminishing number of boxes and bags.
Old and young Israelis - some new immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, others born and raised in Israel - huddle together waiting for volunteers to call their names.
An Israeli man leaves the Petach Tikva distribution centre with his food supplies
Moses Nissan has run the centre for six years. He said it currently feeds 250 families and he had seen a steady growth in the number of families referred to him by social services.
“It’s the government’s responsibility to feed these people – but they are not doing so, and in the meantime they have to eat,” he said.
He supplies their basic needs using a variety of contributions LATET collects, often supplementing the rations with goods bought with his own money.
“I could not sleep knowing I turned someone away from the centre empty handed,” he said, slipping some extra goods into one woman’s basket after she explained she has to feed 10 family members.
The woman hurriedly leaves the centre, obviously ashamed of her situation.
Alternative poverty report
Through centres such as the one in Petach Tikva, LATET distributes food to more than 50,000 Israeli families every week. Each year, it publishes an alternative poverty report, which it claims shows the true picture of poverty in Israel.
According to its latest report, in 2006 the scale of donations fell dramatically while the number of needy families shot up by a quarter.
And despite official reports of lower rates of unemployment last year, NGOs are receiving more and more requests for help.
The poorest Israelis lead a completely different life to mainstream Israel, giving up on vital things such as education or dental care, the report found.
And many believe their situation is hopeless. Half of the Israelis living in poverty say they have no hope for a better life while a third believe their children will also suffer poverty, according to the report.
LATET and other NGOs have appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to demand that the Israeli state does more, arguing that it is in violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which ensures the right to an adequate standard of living.
Ministry of Social Affairs spokesman Nahum Ido said the ministry distributes 48 billion shekels (US $10 billion) a year to needy citizens through various benefits schemes.
“It is unclear to us how an NGO that adopted a policy of social solidarity believes that the state needs to supply food or assist NGOs. The roles were always clearly divided between the state and civil society, which adds what is lacking in the state’s resources,” he said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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