Director of the Department Social and Economic Rights | The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)
Social justice in Israel – between realisation and dehydration
Last year, I shared here some of my thoughts about last summer’s unprecedented social protest in Israel (see 'How to achieve "social justice"?' and 'From social unrest to a social basic law'). The social protest indicated that Israel had become a country where many could no longer realise the basic right to life with dignity and a decent standard of living.
For the first time, this was seen by many not only as a result of life circumstances or choices made, but also a part of something much bigger: long-standing government policies which were detrimental to large sectors of society.
Entitled "Between Realization and Dehydration", a new study by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), presents the first comprehensive analysis of these policies. It explains the processes and methods by which three decades of Israeli governments implemented policies that amount to a dramatic retreat of the state from its responsibility to ensure social rights in housing, health, education, employment, and welfare.
As budgets were cut, many social services were privatised, while legislative initiatives to promote social rights were being thwarted. In addition, many social laws already on the books were suspended by the so-called “Arrangements Law”, a yearly governmental bill that bundles together various legislative amendments as required to implement the new budget. Thanks to the government’s majority in parliament, Arrangements Laws are passed automatically, without appropriate scrutiny. Further, the government used various ploys to simply excuse itself from implementing other social laws. Tax policy was also placed in the service of the market economy, with tax benefits serving the powerful, increasing the burden on the middle class and lower income groups. Regrettably, the judiciary has generally provided legal backing to the government and the Knesset as they slowly dissolved the social safety net.
Shifting the responsibility to the private sector was carried out without sufficient attention to social implications or providing alternatives to Israel’s citizens. The result was extensive damage to the systems of education, health, and welfare; a shortage of affordable housing; an insufficient labor market; and most Israelis vulnerable to unbridled competition, insufficient salaries, and exploitive work conditions.
To ensure that resistance to these policies would not gain traction, selective benefits were given to strong interest groups, thereby silencing them. Organised labour, which might have been able to prevent some harm to the labor market, was rendered impotent. Intense campaigns were waged to delegitimise all those adversely affected by the policies, particularly those who suffered most.
Linking the pain and distress of (many) individuals to systemic problems is not self-evident and has been absent from the public discourse for too long. In a country security continues to be precarious, it has been easy for politicians to justify huge security outlays while avoiding the social issues, and callously cutting social spending.
It is too early to say which social-economic direction Israel will head now. Many would agree that the massive protests succeeded in changing public discourse, but the government has muzzled the protest, rather than changing policies. While it has taken a few steps in the right direction – such as extending free education to preschoolers – these are too few and limited to reflect a significant change in direction.
We hope that our new study will serve to clarify the mechanisms underlying government policies, inspire additional social activism, and provide a tool in the ongoing Sisyphean effort to attain social justice.
Tali Nir is the Director of the Social and Economic Rights Department at ACRI, and the principal author of the report Between Realization to Dehydration.