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Letter from Jerusalem: Hunger in the Holy Land

This summer, as mass protests over the high cost of living swept across Israel, my family lived and ate like Americans. While staying in my parents’ home in New York, we consumed large quantities of everything from strawberries to salmon simply because we could. We can’t buy some of our favorite foods in Jerusalem, where we’ve lived for many years — not because they’re unavailable, but because they’re too expensive.

While it’s reasonable to have to pay more for imported products, even many homegrown Israeli foods are now well beyond our means. Despite the close proximity of farms in Israel, a 2-liter bottle of Tropicana-style orange juice costs $6, while a tiny yogurt sets you back $1.25.

Since the start of the recession we’ve been on the lower end of middle class and extremely frugal. Even so, after paying our mortgage, tuition fees, utilities, and the rest, we have to dip into savings to purchase out-of-season fruits and vegetables, or “luxury” items like rice milk (almost $5/quart) and whole wheat bread ($3.50 a loaf). And we have to think twice before inviting Shabbat dinner guests, knowing there won’t be many leftovers.

Although we’re able, thankfully, to provide our children with an adequate amount of nutritious food — we shop in the Mahane shuk and the cheapest supermarkets — hundreds of thousands of Israeli kids aren’t so lucky. Even with a GDP per capita of $29,500 in 2009, Israel has “one of the highest poverty levels” in the western world, and “one of the highest levels of inequality,” Shlomo Swirski, academic director of the Adva Center think tank in Jerusalem, noted in a recent report. Israel, Swirski said, is a classic case of a country whose macroeconomic indicators are thriving, “but most of whose households are not invited to the end-of-year celebration.”

A quarter of Israelis live below the poverty line, including 800,000 children, according to the National Insurance Institute. All too often, the disabled, the elderly (especially Holocaust survivors), single moms, and heads of large families must rely on public assistance and charitable institutions like soup kitchens, meal programs and shelters.

“No one is starving in Israel,” Joseph Gitler, founder and chairman of Leket, Israel’s largest food bank and food rescue operation is quick to emphasize. “It’s much more akin to western-style poverty,” where people are forced to skip meals or purchase food that is cheap but not necessarily nutritious.

Gitler, whose organization expects to distribute this year 18 million pounds of fresh produce, 1.4 million sandwiches and hundreds of tons of staple foods to organizations that serve the poor, emphasized that “food insecurity” (the inability to consume nutritious food on an ongoing basis) isn’t a problem just for the poor. “A large percentage of this summer’s social protesters were working people,” Gitler said of the 75 percent of Israelis who earn no more than $1,700 a month. But after paying the rent and filling up the tank ($60 in a compact car), “there’s very little left for certain fruits and vegetables.”

Moshe Justman, an economics professor at Ben Gurion University, said there is no simple way to narrow the gap between the “Start-Up Nation” crowd and other Israelis.

“You could raise taxes for the rich and provide greater subsidies for the poor, but this would have consequences as well,” Justman said. “The very rich may decide to withdraw their money from Israel and emigrate, while giving generous welfare payments is a disincentive to work. Having a better educational system will narrow gaps, but will take a long time.”

At a late October press conference to jumpstart a new round of public protests, 80-year-old Holocaust survivor Ruth Krieger shared her financial woes. “My entire family, all of them are gone,” Krieger said. “I know survivors living without water and electricity and no one helps them. There’s no one who comes and knocks on the door to ask, ‘Ruth, do you have enough to eat?’”

The high price of food and housing has also hit younger Israelis very hard,” 26-year old Stav Shaffir, a protest leader, told me. “Israel isn’t like the U.S., where healthy food is more expensive but not necessarily exorbitant. Here in Israel, you have to work around the clock to afford the necessities. After that, who has the time or energy to cook?”