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Rash of ‘Economic Suicides’ Heats Debate on Rising Inequality in Israel

JERUSALEM — Menashe Habakuk was once described as Israel’s golden boy. National judo champion during the late 1980s, he won the gold medal at the 1990 Maccabiah games, married an adoring fan and went to work as a trainer in a studio near Tel Aviv.

Six years later he was working part time as an air conditioning repairman in Modi’in, outside Jerusalem, raising two small children and dreaming of getting back to the sport. When a friend’s plan to open a new studio fell through and he lost his air conditioning job, he went into a downward spiral of poverty and depression from which he never emerged. On April 23, the last day of Passover, he killed himself. He was 36.

Habakuk’s death would have gone largely unnoticed, just one of the estimated 400 to 600 Israelis who kill themselves every year for a variety of reasons. But one month after his death he re-emerged as a media star of sorts. He was one of 18 Israelis believed to have committed suicide during the preceding two months because of economic desperation.

The rash of “economic suicides,” as they have become known, exploded onto the front pages on May 22 with the death of Ze’ev Nir, 67, a failed caterer from the Haifa suburb of Binyamina. Nir’s suicide became front-page news because of his family. His brother, Ehud Manor, is one of Israel’s most celebrated songwriters.

In a letter he left taped to his body, Nir asked his family for forgiveness, explaining that he could no longer endure the family business’s financial difficulties. “I am going through a terrible emotional crisis, with which I can no longer live,” he wrote. “I beg your forgiveness, and wish you all long and happy years without me.”

Within a day after Nir’s body was found hanged in his backyard, newspapers were running pictures of others, including two that very week: Rachel Hartman, a schoolteacher who killed herself May 19 after being laid off, and Rafi Cohen, 45, owner of a Beersheva electronics store, who killed himself, also on May 19, saying in a note that his debts were unmanageable.

Labor and Social Affairs Minister Zvulun Orlev responded by calling for government action to stem “the wave of suicides resulting from the economic situation.” He called for an interministerial team to provide people suffering financially with advice and services in employment, housing and mental health. He also called for the formation of support groups and Internet forums.

Since then, Israel’s poverty level has become a matter of political controversy. Prime Minister Sharon declared last week that “there is poverty, but no starvation” in Israel, and called on Diaspora Jewish charities to stop citing Israeli hunger when raising money. The Cabinet responded with a declaration condemning organizations using “images of poverty and hunger” to raise money for Israel.

Offensive or not, statistics show that the situation is indeed serious. The government itself estimates that more than one million people — about one in six Israelis — live below the poverty line. Figures released May 20 indicated that unemployment was at a 10-year high of 10.8% in the first quarter of 2003, with 281,000 Israelis out of work. Among men, it rose from 9.9% in the previous quarter to 10.6%, while among women it rose to 11.1% from 10.5%.

The overall unemployment figure ranks Israel as second highest in the Western world, after Spain, whose unemployment rate is 11.2%. The Eurozone (an average of 15 European Union countries) jobless rate is currently at 7.6%, while the U.S. has a rate of 6%. On a positive note, there was a 2.5% rise in the first-quarter gross domestic product, though the GDP is still 3% lower than it was on the eve of the outbreak of violence two and a half years ago.

Whether or not the suicides can be blamed on the economy is a matter of intense debate among academics. “All these cases attributed to the economic situation were not caused by it,” said clinical psychologist Israel Or-Back of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on suicide. “The ruckus created around the suicide issue is bigger than the objective situation merits, and the media is definitely fanning the flames.”

“There are people, most people, who manage to cope with debts,” said Or-Back. “When a person is in distress, anything can add to it or be a trigger for suicide, but you cannot say the economic situation killed him. Money is status and honor, and self-esteem and power. All these are damaged when a person loses his money. He doesn’t commit suicide because he owes money. There are many bankrupt people who sleep very well at night.”

Others, however, insisted that while poverty alone could not explain the deaths, it played an essential role.

“Each case is different, but if you look at the phenomena generally, you understand that people suffer alone,” said Vered Slonim-Nevo, chairman of the department of social work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and award-winning founder of a Beersheva soup kitchen. “They think that there is no light at the end of tunnel, but if they listen to others, they can find out that there are other opportunities and other ways to overcome those problems.”

Slonim-Nevo acknowledged that Israel had experienced economic difficulties in the past, but said the current crisis is different. “In the 1950s everyone was poor,” she said. “Now the social gaps are widening. When everyone is poor, everyone lives modestly. The attitude is, ‘So, that’s life.’ But when you see others that enjoy life, and you yourself were okay — middle class, upper middle class — and suddenly you fall down to be lower middle class and even below, they feel desperate, they don’t know how to deal with it.”

Sigal Habakuk, Menashe’s widow, put the problem starkly in an interview with the daily Yediot Ahronot. “We couldn’t buy treats for the children,” she said. “Sometimes we couldn’t even afford milk and bread. From time to time they cut off our electricity and water. We didn’t have a gas line, and our phone only took incoming calls. The struggle was nearly impossible. Menashe was used to seeing a full refrigerator at least on holidays. It could be that that’s what broke his heart in the end, the empty refrigerator on the holiday.”

Now, Sigal said, she is left alone with two small children and huge debts. “The suicide solved nothing. It only created bigger problems. I’m angry at what he did. My situation is worse than ever. I’m a young mother of 33 who needs to deal with the trauma of my children and I’m sinking lower than ever below the poverty line.”

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