Tip of the iceberg: COVID-19 and the welfare state in Israel

It is probably known to most readers of this column that Israel is home to an existential conflict between national-ethnic groups. This conflict is often manifest in clashes between narratives on how Israel was established, and the history of the very land upon which it sits. Yet, few realize how polarized the discourse among Israelis concerning their country’s future is; specifically regarding the best ways to maintain its achievements and sustain social and economic growth.

The Israeli welfare state, as a departure point or conceptual framework for this discourse, is difficult to describe definitively. Today it is commonly outlined as a hybrid welfare state, joining Western liberal elements with Middle Eastern, collectivist, traditional characteristics. In the past decade, Israel’s GDP has increased at a higher rate than the OECD average. On the other hand, Israel’s poverty rate is one of the highest in the West. Israelis also report low trust in their state’s institutions, yet high levels of satisfaction with their lives in general.

Against the backdrop of these inconsistencies, various voices over the years have increased in volume, cautioning that our economic growth, high quality of life, and stable labor market are enjoyed by only a specific segment of Israeli society, and that social distress on a huge scale crouches, poised to pounce, behind these “blue-ribbon” numbers, in both social strata that struggle with poverty and sidelining, as well as in the middle class, which is an “endangered species”.

COVID-19 landed meteor-like onto this complex reality, and has generated multi-level effects.

Take for example the trajectory of Israel’s unemployment rate in the past two months: In February, unemployment was 3.2%. In April, the number of unemployed surpassed one million Israelis for the first time (representing a 25% rate of unemployment). Interestingly, in Hebrew, the word for an unemployed individual is muvtál, which contains an element of disparagement hinting that the person is a malingerer. Pre-corona, when few Israelis were unemployed, the media referred to them as muvtalìm [pl. form of muvtál] as a matter of course. In mid-March, when the number of unemployed Israelis stood at 600,000, the media began referring to them as chasrèi avodá, or “[those] without employment”. When the number of unemployed climbed to a million and counting, coverage of them mainly referred to dorshèi avodá or “job seekers”. These apparently semantic differences may represent a window of opportunity to press forward with asking more probing questions about the social and economic vulnerability and sustainability of many Israelis.

Now what? Several Israeli civil society organizations, as well as academics, are identifying a shift in Israel’s social discourse, and are engaged in raising awareness of all of those forms of distress that plague Israeli society and still lie beneath the tip of the iceberg exposed by COVID-19. Should these efforts materialize in more just, inclusive and effective policies, Israel’s social preparedness for any future crisis that comes our way, will certainly improve.

Lia Levin, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer at the Bob Shapell School of Social Work, Tel Aviv University, Israel, and is the Head of Tel Aviv University’s Policy Practice Clinic.


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