A feud between Israel’s prime minister and Diaspora Jewish charities over the use of Israeli hunger as a fundraising tool blew up in the prime minister’s face last week, following publication of an American-backed study showing that hunger not only exists but is widespread in Israel.
The study, which was leaked to the Israeli press and dominated headlines for two days last week, showed that 22% of Israeli households, more than one in five, suffer from inadequate nutrition because of poverty. The study was conducted by the Brookdale Institute, the research arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
News of the study’s findings comes three months after a Cabinet meeting in which Prime Minister Sharon publicly attacked oversees funders which had highlighted Israeli hunger in their fundraising appeals to American donors. At the meeting, he brandished a Joint brochure to illustrate his complaint.
Declaring that Israel had “poverty, but no hunger,” Sharon won Cabinet approval June 1 for a resolution calling on Diaspora charities to focus on “Jewish and Zionist education” rather than on Israelis’ economic hardship.
Israeli press reports, confirmed by several sources, indicated that aides to the prime minister had intervened last month to delay — or, as some sources claim, undermine — the new study, which some Israeli officials view as harmful to Israel’s image.
“You have a government that is obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed by the hunger, and on the other reality, which the Brookdale study confirms, that poverty and hunger exist,” said a source close to both sides.
The study, conducted in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Health, was commissioned by the Forum on Food Insecurity and Poverty, a coalition of American Jewish philanthropic federations and private Jewish foundations in several countries that work directly with Israeli schools and municipalities to provide food to the poor.
According to Israeli media reports, Yisrael Maimon, a Sharon aide and the secretary of the Cabinet, wrote to the ministers of welfare, education, justice, health and interior late last month asking them not to attend a conference at which the study was to be formally released.
The study was to have been announced on August 27 and then unveiled in full at a conference scheduled for September 2. Following a decision by the sponsors to postpone the release until October, partial findings were leaked to the Israeli media on August 27. It was not known who was responsible for the leak.
Several sources close to the situation said the postponement had come at the initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office, which ostensibly wanted to examine the results more thoroughly. But the forum denied this, stating in an e-mail to conference participants that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs had requested the delay so it could have an opportunity to join with the forum as “planning partners for the conference and in future initiatives related to food security and poverty.”
Officials sympathetic to Sharon’s stance told the Forward that the prime minister and his aides were distressed by the use of the word “hunger,” noting that most of the families described in the study as “insecure” were in fact obtaining food.
Forum sources maintained that since the study was leaked to the press, contacts had been made with Sharon’s office, which was now expected to cooperate in the release of the full report. The opposition, one source said, occurred “before they knew the scope of the problem.”
Several sources familiar with the debate charged that the efforts by Sharon’s office reflect a feud between the Joint and another Jewish philanthropy, the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose chairman is a Likud politician with ties to Sharon. The two institutions, both international Jewish welfare agencies with multimillion-dollar budgets, compete for declining allocations from federated Jewish philanthropic campaigns in the United States and elsewhere.
Forum leaders say they are undaunted by the political controversies and expect their efforts to yield results. “We started with 18 funders — now we’re over 30, with federations and funders from Australia, Europe and America,” said forum co-chair Laurie Heller, a private consultant who was formerly director of the Israel office of the UJA-Federation of New York. “There are an estimated 150 groups feeding the poor in Israel, up from 116.”
Heller said that the various feeding programs lack coordination, which is what the forum hopes to remedy.
She and other officials close to the study said that participation by government ministries was essential in order to ensure that the study’s findings were translated into government policy.
While Joint officials and forum leaders say they are confident the ministries will be cooperative, other philanthropies that feed Israel’s poor are worried. “You have a situation where deleterious information is coming out and there are some who want to dig their heads in the sand and say it doesn’t exist or push off the release as long as they can,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. “I’m not saying that’s the case here, but those are certainly options that may be the case here.”
The Chicago-based rabbi, who has raised millions of dollars, mostly from Evangelical Christians, by highlighting Israeli hardship, continued: “You don’t really need to have that statistical information to be able to tell you what everyone in this country knows. There are people falling without a safety net.”
The survey of 1,400 families is the first attempt in Israel to measure food security, a term devised by American social-welfare experts to denote a lack of access to adequate food due to poverty.
Those experiencing nutritional insecurity eat smaller portions, skip meals and, in extreme cases, don’t eat for a whole day. Diets can be high in carbohydrates and lacking or almost devoid of meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. In Israel, 14% of families are deemed moderately insecure and 8% suffer from severe insecurity.
Standards for measuring food insecurity were developed by the United States Department of Agriculture. The Israeli study used survey methods adapted from the American model, forum leaders said.
A family’s situation is considered moderately insecure when the parents deprive themselves of food to ensure that the children get what they need. In families whose situation is severe, the children are deprived as well. About 24% of Israeli households are forced to make choices between food and other expenses such as a mortgage, rent, medicine, heating and electricity, the study found. About half choose to get along with less food.
Private initiatives to remedy the insecurity have been under way for some time. According to Heller, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Education, is providing meals to 2,200 children in 11 schools in five cities. Lobbying efforts are in the advanced stages to pass laws that require milk and bread to be fortified with essential nutrients. And the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is about to launch a program that will work in at least eight schools in south Tel Aviv to provide longer school days and hot lunches.
“We’ve been discussing what we should do for about six months,” said the president of the Los Angeles federation, John Fishel. The discussion started after Fishel’s federation was approached by several Israeli-based charities seeking help.
Regarding Sharon’s reaction to hunger campaigns in general, Fishel said: “I can understand the sensitivity of this. I’m going to reserve my judgment on this until I see the study and understand.”
According to the study, some 80% of the nutritionally insecure have reported a deterioration in their situation during the last two years, as Israeli economic conditions have deteriorated. Some 60% of the nutritionally insecure are veteran Jewish families, 20% are Arab families and 20% are new immigrant families.
“Long-term malnutrition for a couple of years lowers IQ,” Heller said. “We used to be in the top 17 in the world. Now we’re behind Romania.”
— With reporting by Ha’aretz.