Vikki Knafo

NETANYA, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)–A new economic plan in Israel slashes child allowances, raises health taxes for housewives and increases the retirement age for women by seven years.

Last week, a single mother named Vikki Knafo conducted a week-long protest walk from Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem, covering 124 miles and almost one-third of the country. Her journey drew support along the way, as well as attention to the plight of other single mothers on welfare, and she was met at her final destination, the Finance Ministry, by activists from all over the country.

“I am not a political activist. I am just a woman who has had enough,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “The government has to realize that we are not going to just sit and take it.”

These changes represent a significant development in Israel’s policy, which once financially rewarded women for having children. Although women aren’t specifically being targeted in the spending cuts, they are among the hardest hit.

Single mothers are feeling the brunt of the changes. The National Insurance Institute of Israel has lowered the ceiling of how much they will give for child support in circumstances in which a child’s father is unable or unwilling to pay and supplemental income to families living below the poverty level has been drastically reduced, leaving a large segment of the population being thrust into poverty.

These changes have been on paper for months, but once the reforms were actualized, and families were faced with the reality of not having enough money, people began to protest.

Ella Gera, advocate and executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, said Knafo’s protest is the birth of a social movement as women continue to gather in front of the Ministry in Jerusalem, without any orchestration.

“It is absolutely amazing what is happening there,” said Gera. “They are spontaneously rising up to protest against what they see to be an impossible situation. Vikki works. She is not a parasite, as the Foreign Ministry is trying to make out. But her salary is way below minimum wage. She has three kids to support, and the state was giving her a supplementary income. Now, about 25 percent of her income has been cut back. Where is she supposed to cut back now? What does the Foreign Ministry expect her to give up on?”

Cuts Constitute a Change in Demographic Policy

Other cuts involve a monetary gift that Israel has provided for many years upon the birth of each new child. This amount was NIS 1,400 ($325) for each of the first four children born, and then from child number five and on, that amount doubled to NIS 2,800 ($650) per child. These grants were given to support the growth of families in Israel, for both religious and demographic reasons.

Now, while the initial gift has actually been increased to NIS 1,600 ($372) for the first child, nothing further will be given for additional births. According to National Security data, this means that 71 percent of all childbirths in Israel will no longer receive grants.

Also affected is a monthly child allowance that mothers have received until now. Under the new plan, mothers will receive a flat NIS 144 ($33) per month for each child, whereas previously, each new child brought its mother a grant larger than its prior siblings.

A mother with three children will now receive 38 percent less government support and mothers of seven or eight children will find a 73 percent cut in the funding they used to receive.

“It wasn’t such a great amount,” says Gera. “But more than the money, it was a statement of support by the country.”

All of these cuts are being phased in gradually over the next seven years and will have the greatest effect on families with large numbers of children, often poorer families. As well, they mark a dramatic change in Israel’s policy.

Since declaring statehood in 1948, one of the country’s main objectives has been to populate itself, both by encouraging immigration from around the world, and encouraging growth from within, through incentives for bigger families. In 1948 there were 650,000 Jews living in Israel. By 1970 there were more than 2,500,000, and today there are 5.4 million Jews living in Israel. Some of the credit for growth may be given to a governmental body created in 1967, called the Israel Council for Demography, whose main function seems to have been to encourage childbirth by providing incentives for couples raising large families such as education, housing and insurance benefits.

Not everyone is incensed over the cutbacks. Rebecca, a mother of five and full time employee outside her home in Jerusalem, figures that her family will receive around NIS 1000 ($232) less per month, but that they’ll just have to find another way to make up the difference.

“I think that anyone who has lots of kids expecting the government to feed them needs to rethink some of their values,” she says. “But what annoys me is at the same time, the government isn’t proportionately lowering the income and other less direct taxes, to encourage the work force. If the government is taking so much away, then at least let people’s income get to them rather than be taxed too.”

Women Face Cuts in Health Care, Rise in Retirement Age

An estimated 500,000 wives work as homemakers in Israel and up until now their health care has been covered by their husbands’ jobs. Under the new plan, these women will now have to pay NIS 70 ($16) per month. In addition, other health benefits will be cut. Nina Devere, former member of the national board of directors of Emunah Women, an Israeli organization dedicated to education and social welfare, says these cuts will mainly affect poor women.

“Firstly, women who don’t work are usually poorer than women who do and they are the ones who must now pay the health tax,” Devere says. “As well, health care will go down, because these people don’t have the 20 shekels ($4.50) for the co-payment that will be required.”

One possible alternative to the health tax is currently being debated in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Instead of drawing the needed funds from housewives without salaries, the money can be appropriated by slightly lowering the amount every worker can claim as a tax allowance.

And according to Gera, there are other ways the government might find its necessary funding. On August 1, a new tax reform will come into effect, providing a reduction in taxes levied on those in the higher income brackets. This reform will cost the country 2 billion shekels ($455 million) in income. Gera’s solution? Stop the new tax reform from happening until another source of funds can be found.

“We’re saying hold the reform; give this money in benefits and go back to the drawing board. You cannot give breaks to the rich at the cost of women,” insists Gera.

Until now, the official age for women to retire with full pension was 60, with an option to work until age 65. This number has now been raised to 67, and since two-thirds of women actually retire by age 55, these women will be asked to wait not 5, but 12 years before they can receive any of their benefits. This part of the plan will be phased in over 20 years, with three or so months being added on to the retirement age every year. The retirement age for men in Israel has been raised from 65 to 70. It will be phased in the same as with the women.

Cuts Birth a New Protest Movement

For months, as the new plan was being discussed, arguments raged, the country lived through a number of union strikes, and groups of women gathered in protest of the proposed cutbacks. Even now with the bill having passed, the individual protestors refuse to quit, and social rights activists are already preparing seven petitions arguing that the laws are undemocratic and violate civil rights. Among those items being petitioned against are child allowance and pension reform, in hopes that the finance ministry will be forced to rethink the new reforms and find alternate ways to save on governmental spending. And in Jerusalem, in front of the Finance Ministry, tents have been erected. More women, children, fathers and mothers arrive each day, demanding to be heard by their government.

Gera calls this a new protest movement. “The cry of a people is taking wing,” she says.

Joy Pincus is a contributing writer to The Jerusalem Post. She is the assistant editor for the Middle East Review of International Affairs journal.

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