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The Passion of the Pension

The second biggest surprise of Israel’s election last week — after the evaporation of the Greater Israel ideology — was the meteoric appearance of the Pensioners Party. As most of the world knows by now, the party had surfaced as a fringe protest group, all but invisible in voter surveys, but it somehow caught an unforeseen wave of disaffection and captured seven seats in the 120-member parliament. Without warning, it rocketed into the heart of Israel’s political mainstream.

Israel watchers around the world have been struggling ever since to make sense of the phenomenon. The explanations cover just about every possible variation, from disgust with corruption to alienation from politicians to loss of Zionist ideology to plain election-day whimsy.

The only explanation that hasn’t made the headlines is the obvious one: genuine distress over the plight of Israel’s retirees.

The crisis is easy to describe. Israel’s growing population of retirees has been reduced to a state of profound economic insecurity in recent years, as self-styled economic reformers have hollowed out the Jewish state’s time-honored system of care for the elderly. Pensions have been frozen. Social security payments, known in Israel as national insurance, have been relentlessly whittled away — cut by 35% in a single decade. Health care and prescription drug coverage have been slashed, along with funds for senior housing and assisted living.

It’s part of a deliberate move by Jerusalem policy-makers to modernize Israel’s economy, by which they mean to remodel it along American lines. Determined to bury the socialist ethos of Israel’s founders, successive governments since the mid-1980s have slashed income supports and welfare payments even as they’ve privatized and deregulated industries, opened capital markets to international competition and reduced workers’ job security (they call it “liberalizing labor laws”). Over the past three years, under the economic leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, the reforms have been ramped up to a revolution.

The results have been entirely predictable: respectable economic growth, booming foreign investment, a new class of millionaires, and an explosion of poverty and hunger. In just one generation, Israel has gone from the most egalitarian nation in the industrialized world to one of the least egalitarian.

The numbers are depressingly familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Israeli affairs. One of every five Israelis today lives below the poverty line. Hardest hit are children: 30% live in poverty. Seniors are next, with 25% living in poverty. But hungry children can’t organize a political insurgency. Seniors can. The wonder is that they took so long.

What held them back until now, of course, was the overriding issue of national security, which trumped all other debates. This year, the balance tipped. The defeat of the Palestinian uprising and the beginning of disengagement from the territories gave Israelis a sense of control over their destiny for the first time in years. The emergence of Amir Peretz, the stormy trade unionist who took over the Labor Party, restored some of the fire to Israeli social democracy and put domestic affairs on the political agenda.

And then there was the simple, glaring fact of poverty. Too many Israelis had reached the point where their own personal security seemed more precarious than their country’s. The plight of the seniors was particularly compelling, because it spoke to youngsters worried about their parents. Israel’s fragmented electoral system encourages the young and bored to register their disaffection by voting for a fringe party. The usual choices range from animal rights to legalized pot. This year, those votes went overwhelmingly to the Pensioners.

Israel is actually the second Western nation to experience a political uprising in recent months against the ravages of neoliberal pension reform. The first was Chile, which elected its first woman president in January, a socialist and single mother, largely because of anger at that nation’s switch from social security to individual-investor accounts. The switch, which began in 1981, has had a devastating impact on Chile’s elderly.

Americans were curiously slow in adopting the snake oil we’ve been peddling to our client states. Lately, though, we’ve begun galloping in that direction. Companies are abandoning pension plans in a stampede, leaving a growing army of retirees suddenly without a means of support. Federal and state governments are working busily to gut the Medicaid programs on which seniors depend for nursing care and basic needs. If President Bush has his way, Social Security will be next.

The common justification is that we can no longer afford to maintain this sort of support. Society can’t be responsible for the old, the sick and the helpless among us, we’re told. It’s just not smart economics.

Voters in Israel, like those in Chile, Brazil and a growing list of other countries, are saying that smart economics must begin by doing the first job of an economy: providing food, clothing and shelter. An economy that doesn’t do that is a failure, no matter what the bean counters say.

Conservatives offer an alternative notion that they call individual responsibility. They’d like to bring us back to the imagined days of picket fences and pioneer self-reliance, of Daniel Boone and Tom Sawyer. They want us to forget that those were also the days of Charles Dickens.

The biblical book of Leviticus, which is being read in synagogues around the world beginning this month, suggests the beginnings of a decent economic approach. Pay every worker the full fruit of his labor. Return to every household its inheritance, so all can live out their years in dignity. Rise up and honor the hoary head. Let no one – citizen or stranger, high-born or servant – end her days in the humiliation of penury.

The moral vision that came forth from Zion 3,000 years ago was of a society commanded to honor and protect its old and weak. The word from Jerusalem last week was of a modern political system determined to translate that vision into dollars and cents.


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