JERUSALEM — In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to stand up. In 2003, Vicki Knafo refused to lie down.
It’s too early to say whether Knafo, the single mother from the Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon who marched to Jerusalem this month to protest the government’s austerity budget, will have the same impact as Parks. Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama pitted her against the worst of Southern racism and sparked the civil rights movement. Knafo’s crusade against Israeli government budget cuts has pitted her against a popular prime minister, his internationally admired finance minister and an economic establishment that views the government’s emergency budget plan as the moral equivalent of war.
But Knafo, a gravelly-voiced, curly-haired, iron-willed mother of three, is turning out to be a formidable foe. Since she set off July 1 on her unplanned, 125-mile march from the Negev to Jerusalem, she has been joined by hundreds of others who have marched to the capital from around the country and set up a tent camp outside the Finance Ministry. Thousands more have joined protests around the country. The spontaneous outpouring has turned Knafo’s impromptu hike into a populist crusade that is already unprecedented in Israeli history.
“An unorganized social protest of this kind, on this level, we haven’t seen for many, many years — if ever,” said Ben-Gurion University economist Arie Arnon. “It is a real, authentic protest by the victims of the current economic policy.”
The phenomenon has caught the political establishment — particularly Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — completely by surprise. Netanyahu, shoved reluctantly into the Finance Ministry last February by Prime Minister Sharon, has staked his political career on the success of a sweeping fiscal reform package that was pushed through the Knesset in May. Based on conservative, Thatcherite principles — lower taxes, fewer regulations and sweeping cuts in entitlements — the plan is a showpiece for Netanyahu’s reputation as a neoconservative economic theorist and a can-do leader.
It’s also a matter of some urgency. With the economy in a recession, prices contracting at an annual 0.5%, unemployment running at close to 11% and government tax revenues off by 12% for the first six months of 2003, compared to the first half of 2002, the government’s fiscal crisis is genuine. Aid packages are being negotiated with Washington, but the Bush administration insists Israel cut its current budget deficit, which runs at 6% of the gross domestic product, in half.
To do that, Netanyahu crafted a package of sweeping, across-the-board cuts, hitting everyone from teachers to doctors to Orthodox yeshivas. Among the hardest hit were single mothers, who by one accounting would eventually lose between 52% and 91% of income supplements and child allotments. The program weathered a series of stormy Cabinet debates, then went to the Knesset May 28 for a tumultuous, two-day marathon debate that included 8,000 attempted amendments, an opposition walkout and allegations of double-voting. In the end, the plan triumphed.
Then came Knafo. The 43-year-old divorcee was earning $270 a month cooking for kindergartens in Mitzpe Ramon when she received a letter on June 28 from the National Insurance Institute, Israel’s equivalent of Social Security. It said her monthly supplementary wage allowance would be cut beginning July 1 to $428 from $698. That was it. July 1, she set off by foot for Jerusalem. In a weeklong hike, under the scorching July sun, she attracted plenty of notice. Armies of reporters followed her, and other single mothers from towns along the way joined up to create a traffic-stopping parade.
“It was completely spontaneous,” she said when she arrived in Jerusalem July 8. “I just got up and went. I am not a political activist. I am just a woman who has had enough.”
Suddenly, a movement was born. Knafo became a symbol for the nearly 1.5 million Israelis living below the poverty line. From all across the country they started arriving: single mothers, students, activists, immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia, unemployed factory workers and other disillusioned Israelis, trekking to the capital to protest the cuts.
The challenge to the government has grown almost daily since then. Scores of protesters are living in large tents across the street from the Finance Ministry. Every day more visitors come to schmooze, sympathize and bring food and clothing.
The protests are taking their toll, most of all on Netanyahu. He has stood firm for his plan, but his appearances opposite the earthy, wise-cracking Knafo often leave him looking like a bully. Before a much-publicized meeting with her last week, he told reporters that “anyone who can walk 200 kilometers can go to work in a packing plant,” presumably unaware that Knafo has a job. That weekend, in an interview with Ma’ariv, he blamed Israel’s economic troubles on the pre-World War II policies of Labor Party founders David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson (1887-1944), whose welfare-state theories had, he said, created a “culture of dependency.”
Despite his clumsy defenses, Netanyahu faces a genuine emergency, brought on by the collapse of the high-tech industry, worldwide recession and the security crisis. With the Treasury expecting a $7.2 billion budget shortfall for 2003, there is no choice but to cut. And social welfare, at 21% of the overall budget, is an inevitable target.
Welfare recipients numbered 150,000 in 2002, up from about 30,000 in 1990. According to the Finance Ministry, there are more than 97,000 single parents in Israel with children under 17, constituting 10% of all families, of whom all but 17,000 receive some form of government support. Single parents receive various benefits, including reduced municipal taxes, rent breaks, school subsidies, bus discounts and child allowances.
The economic situation is affecting every sector. Health Minister Danny Naveh spent hours with Netanyahu this month negotiating a bailout for the public health system. Naveh wanted $56 million to cover short-term deficits faced by state-run health institutions.
The economic hardship is felt on the street as well. Restaurants in Jerusalem have been hit hard by terrorism, with a 65% drop in patronage reported for high-end restaurants since October 2000, a 25% drop for moderately priced restaurants and an 8% decline for felafel and pizza joints.
Netanyahu’s position is that single mothers would be best served re-entering the job market. “We will not move back to the culture of pension,” he said last week at a conference. “We will move forward and allow single mothers to work, while taking care of their children, because this is the only way to break the cycle of unemployment.”
Deputy Premier Ehud Olmert told the Cabinet that his Trade and Industry Ministry had found more than 11,000 full- and part-time jobs for single mothers, including caring for the elderly and the disabled and public-works jobs at archaeological digs and nature preserves.
Netanyahu wants the mothers to work one-third more than they currently do, or to take on part-time work if they currently do not work.
Knafo and the protesters dismiss the plan as “unrealistic,” saying there aren’t enough jobs around with unemployment at 10.8%.
Moreover, they say, low pay is leaving many working families hungry. Roni Kaufman, a social-work professor at Ben-Gurion University, said a study on hunger he did in December — before the cuts — found that 40% of families experienced “food insecurity with hunger.”
“The populations at risk — people who rely on social benefits, single mothers, large families — are exactly the people who are now punished by the cuts, the ones whose benefits were cut,” Kaufman said. “The situation was very bad before the cuts. Now you can’t live.”