Welfare State of Exclusion

Examining the Israeli right’s ambitious program to redefine the body politic by revoking social benefits.

Ben Weinberg
January 20, 2020
Illustration: Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson

AMONG THE MANY ADS published the weekend before Israel’s April election, one stood out from the rest. Looming large on the page was the face of Moshe Feiglin, a far-right politician whose fringe party, Zehut (Identity)—an ideological fusion of extreme libertarianism and biblical dreams of temple reconstruction—had been gaining popularity among young people in the lead-up to the election. “Why do more than half of our social security expenditures go to the sector that is responsible for most murders, fatal accidents, car thefts, and illegal construction?” the ad read.

This was an unmistakable reference to Israel’s so-called Arab sector, a common term for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The statistics were, unsurprisingly, false (in fact, only 12% of expenditures go to towns with a majority Arab population, less than the total Arab share of Israel’s population). But the message was clear: Arab citizens of Israel are not the population for whom these entitlements were intended.

Feiglin had made that argument before. Writing for Ma’ariv in 2012, he argued that the National Insurance Institute (NII), the state agency in charge of most welfare benefits, “is insurance for members of the nation, as its name implies. It’s not civil insurance. The Arabs can, if they so wished, establish their own national insurance.”

While Feiglin’s party ultimately failed to win any seats in the Knesset, their efforts speak to an emerging trend on the Israeli right: using the welfare system as a mechanism for exclusion and separation among citizens. Once an economic system meant to protect society from the harms of the market, the welfare state is now utilized as a punitive tool to demarcate the boundaries of the polity. 

Over the past decade or so, Israeli lawmakers have been slowly curtailing and revoking social benefits from (mostly poor) Palestinian families—citizens of Israel who have contributed to the system all their lives—under the pretext of national security or “loyalty” to the state. This largely unnoticed process is reshaping the aims and the boundaries of the welfare state and rolling back the universal approach cemented under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. While the effect of these new laws is limited, their importance lies in their symbolism: they are yet another brick in the rising wall of national separation. 

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Israel. In Europe and the United States, far-right movements that combine traditional xenophobia with popular anti-austerity rhetoric are on the lookout for new paths of exclusion. Fueled by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, they are pushing to bolster forms of social security that benefit the citizens they deem “entitled” while excluding the rest. In the recurring clashes between narrowly-defined national identity and civic equality around the globe, these policies are a canary in the far-right coal mine, in which revoking benefits from specific “others” acts as a gateway to a rollback of other basic civic rights. In Israel, welfare exclusion has been followed by calls to revoke citizenship, providing an alarming test case for what can be expected in other countries under far-right sway. 

ON NOVEMBER 18TH, 2014, an East Jerusalem resident named Ghassan Abu al-Jamal and his cousin opened fire in a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, killing five worshippers and a police officer who came to their aid. Both assailants were killed in the attack. Abu al-Jamal’s wife, Nadia, lived with him and their three children in East Jerusalem, where she had moved from a nearby village in the West Bank after they married in 2002. “He told me he was going to look for work, like he did every morning,” she later told a field researcher for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “He finished his last job about a month and a half ago. I prayed he would find work to pay for house expenses and for the children’s expenses.” She heard about the attack while watching television at her in-laws’ house. Israeli officials have raised no security allegations against her, and she is under no suspicion of involvement. 

The event threw her life, and the lives of her three young sons, into an enduring state of chaos and bureaucratic misery. At the time, two of her children were suffering from chronic medical conditions—her six-year-old was losing his hearing, her two-year-old was underweight—and required constant medical care. Just over a week after the attack, Nadia’s sister-in-law and father-in-law took her youngest son to a routine doctor’s appointment. Born in East Jerusalem, the three children are permanent residents of Israel and therefore legally entitled to the same public medical insurance provided to every other resident of the country. But at the doctor’s office, the family was told that Nadia’s son would not be able to receive medical treatment. His medical file was sealed; his health insurance had been canceled.

“I couldn’t believe it. What crime did my boys commit? They have nothing to do with what happened,” she said. The family also found that they had lost their monthly social security allowance, which was allotted to the children under their father’s name. “It was only 420 shekels [roughly $110],” she said, “but they took that small amount from us.” Her six-year-old had been diagnosed with a heart disease only months before the attack. “He needs close monitoring for fear of coronary artery blockage,” said Nadia. “He needs surgery, and it requires money. I don’t know how to finance his treatment, which is what worries me more than anything.”

It took an intervention by the legal aid group HaMoked for the details to become clear: 24 hours after her husband’s attack, without providing any notice nor a chance for a hearing, the NII decided to cancel all social benefits for Nadia and her children, including their health insurance. The punishment of children, which was apparently initiated without the direction of the judiciary, is in theory against the law. “Small children are punished here for their father’s crimes,” said Dalia Kerstein, then-director of HaMoked, in Haaretz. “This is vengeance for its own sake, without any legal basis.” And indeed, facing multiple legal challenges, the NII reversed its decision and reinstated the children’s health insurance. This temporary relief did not ultimately help Nadia’s family. By order of the Minister of Interior, their house was demolished, Nadia’s stay permit in East Jerusalem was revoked, and in January 2017, the four were deported from the city to the West Bank.

This was access to welfare being used as a tool for collective punishment, and as such was illegal under international and Israeli law. But what happens when the illegal gets written into law?

IN ISRAEL, most welfare benefits are distributed by the NII, which collects payroll taxes and manages dozens of welfare plans for the poor, the unemployed, retirees, pregnant women, and other groups in need. Founded in 1954, it was modeled after the postwar British system, the gold standard for welfare at the time. Indeed, NII’s architects—“social reformers” of the Jewish labor movement—envisioned a comprehensive network of state services that would cover citizens’ needs “from cradle to grave,” providing an array of universal, insurance-based programs. Though in practice, the system has gone through periods of greater informal exclusion, by law, benefits are treated as a taxpayer’s proprietary right—everyone who pays in is entitled to them, regardless of one’s social group or the whims of a specific government. 

But this changed with a small yet consequential amendment to the NII law, passed in 2007. The amendment, proposed by far-right Knesset member Arieh Eldad, withheld the state’s old-age pension from individuals who had served a life sentence for a “security-related” murder—the legal term used to describe acts of terror. (A “life sentence” in Israel is functionally around 30 years.) It was the first time a welfare provision was coded into law not as a benefit, but as a penalty. 

At the Knesset hearings, Eldad’s colleagues praised the law as a first step toward “revoking the citizenship of all those families,” a remark that made plain the desired end goal of a seemingly narrow welfare restriction. Since 2007, legislators have been steadily expanding the reasons to revoke entitlements, all of which have been directed at Palestinian citizens or residents of Israel connected to acts of violence in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. 

In 2012, a new law expanded the sanctions, so that lesser crimes would also justify a removal of benefits. A person receiving a sentence of ten years in prison for “security offenses” would now see their unemployment, workplace injury, employer bankruptcy, and old-age benefits automatically cut by half in perpetuity following their release. 

A few years later, in 2016, Knesset member Yaakov Perry, of the center-left Yesh Atid party, proposed going beyond state-issued benefits to target felons’ employment-based welfare—a benefit he said had been previously “neglected”—making them ineligible for some workplace benefits, like retirement and disability insurance, and full severance pay. The bill would have been approved early this year; it was halted only by the dissolution of the Knesset before the March election. Thus, a legislative trend that began with denying a single old-age entitlement was expanded to the removal of ever more state-sponsored welfare plans, and a position once held only by right-wing extremists had crept into the mainstream.

WE TEND TO THINK of welfare systems as the product of class struggles in times of crisis, a mechanism of protection and redistribution for a populace battered by industrialization, wars, and unrestrained capital. There is truth to that narrative—indeed, over the last two centuries, the market’s negative effects were most drastically curtailed where worker mobilization was strongest. But the same systems were also shaped by—and crucial in shaping—the social “consensus” and who is perceived to be outside of it. “This tension between inclusion and exclusion is intrinsic to the modern welfare state,” says Professor Zeev Rosenhek, a sociologist at the Open University of Israel who studies the history of Israeli welfare. “Whether on an ethnic, religious, or gender basis, the question of who’s in and who’s out has been with us since [German Chancellor Otto von] Bismarck enacted the first social insurance programs in the late 19th century.” 

Those groundbreaking programs to provide workers’ health, old-age, and work injury insurance—which the conservative Bismarck promoted mainly to deflect growing socialist opposition—became the basis for the state systems we know today. But as this early system was being established, Bismarck conferred even stronger benefits on his own civil service, consolidating the new bureaucratic class as a privileged and loyal status group. 

Exclusion played an even greater role in the formation of the US welfare system. As sociologist Jill Quadagno and others have shown, racism against African Americans was one of the main reasons why the American system remained so consistently paltry. In the New Deal era, Southern Democratic politicians routinely blocked proposals for universal social programs, despite representing relatively poor areas. The 1935 Social Security Act, for example, excluded agricultural and domestic workers, the two sectors where most of the black population was employed. These workers were directed instead to aid programs administered by local authorities, who were often short on resources and reluctant to assist.

Three decades later, when Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program set out to fill the gaps in the New Deal welfare state, it also faced fierce white backlash. Some of the most ambitious proposals—those that might have threatened racial hierarchies, like national childcare or massive urban housing plans—were halted before implementation or gradually diminished in subsequent decades. “The American welfare system was a victim of racism against African Americans,” says Rosenhek. “It became identified with the black community, and so a large part of the white population developed a political opposition to the welfare state as a whole.”

The Israeli case presents another story of exclusion, one rooted in a national conflict and ethnic hierarchies, where social services were first employed to prove the feasibility of the Zionist project and advance its economic and territorial growth, and later to mark who isn’t included in it.

Before 1948, the Histadrut, the powerful federation of Jewish trade unions, provided its members with health care, education, housing, employment, banking, pensions, and other services. These benefits were designed to protect workers not only from the dangers of the market but also from competition by local (and less organized) Arab labor, which was perceived as a risk to the entire state-building project. This pre-state national separation set the foundation for a labor market split between protected and precarious workers that would become a hallmark of the Israeli economy: On one side were established Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated in earlier waves of Zionist immigration; on the other were Palestinians, parts of the Jewish middle class, and later, Mizrahi Jews.

Distributing old-age allowances at the National Insurance office in Jerusalem, 1957. Photo: Yehuda Aizenshtark via the Israel State Archives

The dynamics of exclusion changed over time. After the State of Israel was founded, some public services were gradually nationalized, and the newly established NII formalized a field that was controlled by parties, unions, and Zionist organizations. In the agency’s first years, according to Rosenhek, the distinction between Jews and Arabs shifted from enforcement through official rules and regulations to enforcement through informal mechanisms. Palestinian citizens were eligible for benefits, but martial law in their towns, in place until 1966, prevented many from getting to NII branches. Mizrahi Jews were not denied benefits outright, but the programs many of them needed—unemployment, child allowance, and other poverty relief programs—were not implemented. (Palestinian workers from the occupied territories who entered the labor market after 1967 were formally excluded from the system—they had to pay the NII tax but were only covered by a few minimal programs.)

In the 1970s, while the welfare system underwent its greatest period of expansion, the system’s boundaries were explicitly redrawn to bring Mizrahi Jews in and keep Arab citizens out. For example, when it became clear that one of those new programs—child allowances—would in practice funnel much of its resources to traditionally large Arab families, the government convened a special commission formally tasked with “differentiat[ing] between the Jewish and non-Jewish population” in welfare allocation. Ultimately, the commission decided to create a secondary program with higher payments for children of army veterans, which excluded Palestinian families by default.

“When informal mechanisms of exclusion began to weaken, exclusion was formalized once again,” Rosenhek says. The euphemistic criterion “military service of a family member” allowed the government to continue the same ethnonational exclusion as before while avoiding accusations of discrimination. This tactic was expanded to other programs and remained in place for decades.

IT WAS ONLY in the 1990s that the NII system finally universalized. As the Oslo peace process progressed, so did civic equality. The liberal judiciary grew more activist, new human rights groups formed, and older distinctions in allocations of benefits and rights became politically and legally harder to maintain. The child allowance for IDF servicemembers—the last program that treated Jewish and Arab citizens differently—was repealed under Rabin’s government. 

However, this has proved to be a hollow victory in the wider context of neoliberalism, which took hold in Israel in the mid-’80s and intensified under the globalized free-market economics of the Oslo years. Two decades of massive privatizations, budget cuts, and fiscal prudence created a depleted system that provided nominally equal access to all, but real market protection for none. Its political base of support was gone, too: the new neoliberal consensus was shared by both the Labor party, whose middle- and upper-class constituencies benefited from new global market opportunities, and the right-wing Likud party, which has traditionally advocated for laissez-faire economics despite representing lower classes. 

Starved of resources and with no powerful political forces standing up for social policy, the welfare state became a battleground in a fragmented society. Groups ranging from World War II veterans to yeshiva students pushed for programs oriented to their specific interests; budgets were funneled through other, non-universal state agencies; and the question of who is entitled to welfare became contentious. The political weakness of the system had turned it into a patchwork of programs to be contested, tampered with, and eventually used to exclude the “other” in social conflicts. 

One of the biggest clashes around welfare pitted the secular and ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations against one another. In 2000, the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism managed to pass a law creating a new child allowance for families with more than five children, which mainly benefited its own voters. This sparked a political backlash that led to a small, anti-clerical party, Shinui, becoming the third-largest in the Knesset. The line of attack on the Haredim was based on a moral claim: according to the popular argument embraced by Shinui, if the ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the army and most do not even define themselves as Zionists, why should they be given public subsidies? It was not the law’s effectiveness that was driving resistance to it, nor the question of whether it was economically sound, but instead the judgment over who is entitled—or not entitled—to be part of the system. 

Promising to cut the cash flow to the ultra-Orthodox, Shinui joined a Likud government that not only repealed that particular benefit, but continued to massively cut all child allowances and other programs earmarked for the Haredi community. Welfare was both the tool for Haredi exclusion and a victim of the tactic’s success.

ONE LATE NIGHT in November 2015, the chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee (and former head of the Elkana settlement), Nissan Slomiansky, took to the Knesset podium to argue for a particularly cynical and punitive welfare bill. “If a boy throws a stone and goes to prison, and you cannot punish him, you punish his parents,” he said.

That year, a so-called “Third Intifada” was on the rise, and rock-throwing by Palestinian youths had become a near-daily event in parts of East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly formed right-wing government, desperate to keep up with the militant demands of its base, responded with harsh new enforcement measures, including allowing police forces to detain children for longer periods and permitting the use of live sniper fire against protesters. 

Whereas in the occupied territories Netanyahu’s government is able to use unconstrained martial law, in annexed East Jerusalem, where 320,000 Palestinians live not as citizens, but as second-class “permanent residents,” Israeli methods for conflict management are still subject to the restrictions of criminal law. Much to the dismay of the far right, the minors participating in the 2015 wave of rock-throwing could not be dragged out of their schools by soldiers, detained for days, and harassed into plea deals.

Instead, the Knesset targeted their parents by cutting their welfare benefits. It was a strategy as legally creative as it was spiteful: 74% of East Jerusalem’s population and 82% of its children live below the poverty line, a fact that went unmentioned in the 35-minute Knesset committee debate preceding the bill’s approval. (Ironically, this happened on the day the legislature was marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.) 

“At first, the government wanted to deny child allowances to minors involved in rock-throwing offenses while they are imprisoned,” says Sawsan Zaher, deputy general director of Adalah, a legal center for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who challenged the law in the High Court of Justice. But the proposal was soon expanded. More “security offenses” were added to the list of convictions that trigger sanctions, including things like providing shelter to people who crossed the border illegally. The benefits subject to suspension were also expanded to include education grants, alimony, poverty relief, old-age allowances, and other entitlements.

The official objective of the economic sanctions—to deter young people from throwing rocks—ran counter not only to established research showing that increased punishment does not prevent crime, but also to the Israeli government’s own infrequent use of the law to this end. According to Zaher, state attorneys revealed during the court hearings that in the year and a half since the law had been passed, only seven minors were found to fit the law’s provisions. By that time, the so-called Third Intifada had already come and gone. “It really makes you wonder,” says Zaher. “You have a law that was supposed to address a whole phenomenon of rock-throwing, which the state claims is a national calamity, but it has been applied to only seven children. Why do you need a law that applies only to seven children?” Attorneys also disclosed how much money was being withheld from the parents of those children: around $50 a month—not exactly a make-or-break sum.

The High Court issued a temporary injunction, but the motivation behind such initiatives remains a significant cause for concern. The most honest answer to Zaher’s question about motive was given by a Knesset lawyer, who frankly admitted during debate over the law that it was largely a “symbolic message by the state.” This was underlined by MK Slomiansky at the parliamentary hearing where the law was approved. “True, the money [withheld] will not be a deterrence,” he admitted, “but if someone wants to hurt us because we are the Jewish state and they don’t want us, we can’t continue to pay him as if he’s a loyal citizen. It just makes you say: enough.” 

Slomiansky was making the same arguments that were cited to justify cutting benefits for the Haredi community 15 years earlier, now adapted to the nationalist discourse of the present, which sought to use the loyalty of the citizen—as defined by the right—as a criterion for the allocation of rights. 

Having succeeded in preventing any future territorial separation between Israel and Palestine, the current right-wing project seeks to demarcate again and again the separation between Jews and Palestinians within the state of Israel. The approval of the nation-state law—prioritizing Jewish self-determination, Jewish town-building, and the Hebrew language over all else—was the extreme (and extremely symbolic) embodiment of this project; the frequent yet mostly unsuccessful initiatives by legislators to condition citizenship on vague conditions of “loyalty” are another example. In this context, the gradual, targeted denial of welfare benefits is revealed as part and parcel of the same overarching enterprise: to draw symbolic lines between who is in and who is out. 

Similar ideas are being shared by far-right movements around the world, many of which overtly admire and emulate the Israeli brand of ethnonationalism, and draw legitimacy and inspiration from its policies.

In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Rally has campaigned on raising pensions and child benefits, with a “national preference” in payment provision. And in the US, the latest changes to the Public Charge Rule followed a similar logic: they penalize poorer immigrants accessing welfare, health, and other government benefits, effectively pushing out legal immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Access to benefits is reserved for those huddled masses “coming from Europe,” as the acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said in an interview last August, evoking the rule’s history as a tool to prevent Chinese, Irish, and Jewish immigration.

In 2017, the Danish government approved a law to deprive welfare provisions from citizens defined as a “national security risk” who traveled to conflict zones. Targeting Danes who joined ISIS, it was passed thanks to the Danish People’s Party, whose anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant campaigns have pulled the country’s politics to the right. A year later, the government proposed making welfare payments for parents living in “non-Western” neighborhoods conditional on their sending their children to learn “Danish values.”

Local governments are also in the business of security-justified welfare exclusion, even ad absurdum. In March, the Swedish municipality of Staffanstorp voted to deny social benefits to citizens who return there after joining ISIS in Syria. The municipality has 24,000 residents; none of them have ever joined ISIS. The mayor has announced the next step on his agenda: a ban on Halal meat in local schools. 

THE CONCEPTION of the modern welfare state has served a dual, often contradictory role since its inception almost 150 years ago: on the one hand, it has been responsible for a massive redistribution of resources, the upward mobility of large parts of the population, and greater equalization among classes. On the other, it has served as a stratification mechanism, drawing lines of exclusion and inclusion along sociopolitical lines. Its current boundaries are being tested and shaped by new conservative forces, rising in power around the world, chiseling away at the system’s already shaky claims to universalism. 

Where legal and economic institutions still provide some safeguards against the rollback of civil rights, the rising right has identified the welfare state, abused and curtailed over decades of neoliberalism, as a weak link—an easier place to start a project of exclusion.

Ben Weinberg has worked on Knesset legislation analysis for nonprofits and the Israeli press. He was born in Tel Aviv and now lives in Brooklyn.