On June 27, 1967, Arab East Jerusalem was annexed to the State of Israel. With the annexation, 120,000 residents of the Arab sector were joined with the Jewish citizens as equal residents under Israeli law of the united city of Jerusalem.

Despite this legal entitlement to city services and benefits, a study of the 1980-1981 municipal social welfare budget of Jerusalem demonstrates that policies favoring Jewish residents of the city both subordinate traditional social work values and commitments and discriminate against the large Palestinian Arab population. Although the figures analyzed here are for the 1980-1981 period only, they represent the results of a consistent policy implemented in the years since the annexation. Israeli policy aims primarily at marginalizing the Palestinian population of Jerusalem while encouraging the expansion and consolidation of the Jewish hold over the city. This goal remains the touchstone of Israeli actions in Jerusalem and the conclusions to be drawn are as valid today as they were six years ago.

The Ministry

The new Likud government of Menachem Begin created Israel’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in May 1977. Until that time, the Ministries of Social Welfare and Labor were separate in their responsibilities and authority. [1] Allocation of social services and monies in Jerusalem is divided geographically among four bureaus, in North, South, East and West Jerusalem, with local offices spread throughout most neighborhoods. Jewish suburbs such as Neve Ya’acov and Gilo, which have been established in annexed Jerusalem, are considered separately in the budgeting process.

The East Jerusalem social welfare office resumed operation in August 1967. All but two of the social workers who had functioned under Jordanian authority before 1967 were released, and replaced by either Israeli Arabs or Jews, many of whom were seriously underqualified but spoke fluent Arabic. The first director of the East Jerusalem bureau, responsible for the entire area annexed from Jordan, was a religious Jew with no formal higher education. What had been under Jordanian rule an operation providing material assistance and foodstuffs became under Israel a social service bureau comprised of public assistance, family care, elderly and youth services, community work and more.

It was at this time that legal entitlement and political practice came into conflict. Arab staff members accused the bureau administrator of presenting two faces; optimism to the Arab community, and pessimism or apathy toward the bureau staff. Rumors alleging collusion between the bureaus hinted at the probability that the East Jerusalem administration was limiting its budget requests in order to make more funds available for the “Jewish” bureaus, and for the new Jewish neighborhoods then being established in the annexed areas of Jerusalem. The social workers were under increasing pressure to try to provide the community what they were legally entitled to but they seriously lacked the resources to do so. East Jerusalem social workers were well aware of the wide discrepancies between the funds which their bureaus received as compared to other bureaus. Workers who confronted the administration about this discrepancy were “promoted” to the ministry office in the municipality, severing their connection with the East Jerusalem community. In 1977, intra-office and community pressure forced the director of the East Jerusalem bureau to resign. For the next three years, a succession of directors was unable to function effectively within that sensitive, politicized position.

Severe logistical problems also hindered the provision of social welfare services to the Arab community. In 1981, East Jerusalem had one local office to provide services to 16 neighborhoods comprising approximately 120,000 residents, or about one third of the entire population of Jerusalem. [2] In contrast, the three bureaus located in the Jewish sectors of Jerusalem operated with five or six local offices each. The East Jerusalem local office was located on a hillside in Wadi Jawz, a small neighborhood accessible only by foot, car, or one infrequent bus. Six fieldworkers divided a caseload of 1419, 50 of which required intensive therapeutic services. At least two of the six fieldworkers were Israeli Arabs from the Galilee studying towards a bachelor of social work degree at the Hebrew University. A new director was hired in November 1980. The first Arab director of the bureau since 1967, he was a young man, born in the Galilee, with a master’s degree in social work from the Hebrew University.

The Budget

Ziyad Khazzan, the new East Jerusalem director, talked about his delicate position. “Of course, if a client comes to you and asks about financial aid and other legal entitlements, you look through the same book as a worker would in the three other bureaus. Except the way it works here is not exactly according to the law.” Nowhere is this statement more neatly and precisely supported than in the report on the budget.

The social welfare budget for the city of Jerusalem is public information. The breakdown of allocations according to communal affiliations, however, seems to be among the most closely guarded secrets in the state. My repeated requests to examine the budget report were met with suspicion. The assistant director of social welfare proclaimed that the budget would not be relevant to my topic, that my professor should have known better, and wasn’t this too complex an issue anyway for someone who obviously did not know the first thing about budgets. The deputy director and finally the director of social welfare for the municipality of Jerusalem repeated his denials and evasions.

With the persistent help of sympathetic ministry social workers, I finally obtained copies of the budget breakdown. These social workers took real risks in their efforts to circulate ostensibly public information. One worker’s home phone was tapped; he traded messages via his secretary only while for two months he tried to locate the reports. When he finally located them, he passed them to me in his car outside the municipality building, since we could not be seen together inside. All of the information we sought was legally public, to be made “available on request.” Significantly, the format of the 1980-1981 budget no longer broke out social welfare allocations by bureau, as it had in 1979-1980, but only according to the type of service provided. For that reason, more recent figures cannot be obtained. For example, East Jerusalem was no longer a separate line item; rather, all elderly services for the entire city were combined. In the few areas where the 1980 budget did differentiate by bureau, only the North, South, and West Jerusalem bureaus were listed. A study of the 1979-1980 budget, the last report which acknowledged allocations by communal area, shows that 15.2 million shekels ($760,000) were allocated to the four bureaus and two neighborhoods. [3] This figure covered expenditures for home care, basic home equipment (heaters, kitchen utensils), necessary expenses (e.g., travel money to visit family members in institutions), apartment rents for the elderly, special medical expenditures (ambulatory care), and elderly services. [4]

Table I: Jerusalem District Shares of Caseload and Expenditures

                                    Caseload   %    Expenditures    %

East (Arab)                   1,419      10.9        550,000     3.3
West                            2,709      20.8     3,170,000    20.9
South                           3,756      28.9     4,370,000    28.8
North                           4,782      37.8     6,305,000    41.5
Neve Ya’acov                   226       1.7         610,000     4.0
Gilo                                112        .86        245,000     1.6

Source: Budget Book of the Department of Social and Family Services

Table I illustrates the underfunding of Arab services when compared to services provided in the Jewish sectors of Jerusalem and the annexed areas. East Jerusalem comprises approximately 11 percent of the total caseload, but it receives a mere 3 percent of social welfare allocations. In contrast, the North, South and West Jerusalem bureaus, as well as the new Jewish neighborhoods, receive monies either proportionate to or exceeding their caseloads. Even this comparison understates the extent of the Arab sector’s relative deprivation. The tremendous discrepancies in cases per capita between the Arab and Jewish sectors suggests that many Arabs in need of social services have not even entered the system. The discrepancy is even more obvious when one compares the figures for the new neighborhoods — for example, Gilo, located to the south near Bethlehem. While this community has less than 8 percent of the caseload of East Jerusalem, it receives almost one half of the East Jerusalem bureau’s allocation for social services.

The West Jerusalem bureau of social welfare carried 2,709 cases as of June 1979, about twice as many as did East Jerusalem. In comparing elderly services, however, the total allocation for these services in the Western sector was a whopping 43 times higher. In addition to the four bureaus are the “special areas” of Neve Ya’acov and Gilo. Neve Ya’acov is a neighborhood situated in territory occupied by Jordan before June 1967, and is inhabited largely by Jewish immigrants. The figures for East Jerusalem, with its extensive elderly population (many of whom are indigent), present a stark contrast to those of Neve Ya'acov as well (Table II). The tables reveal that an Arab neighborhood of 120,000 in economic and social straits, receives in one year what a Jewish neighborhood of 11,000 receives every month.

Table II: Annual Expenditures by Category

                                          East Jerusalem West Jerusalem Neve Ya’acov

Convalescence                           —                      36,300         9,600
Home care                            10,000                 479,200      148,560
Basic home equipment             1,660                 111,000       14,400
Travel                                       —                      48,500         7,200
Authorized services                 8,340                      —                 —
Tenant assistance                      —                      52,000        12,000
Special necessities                     —                    133,000        48,240
Total (shekels)                     20,000                 860,000      240,000
                                              $997                 $42,893      $11,970

Source: Fiscal Department Guide, p. 19.

Many workers and administrators in the municipality justify this extraordinary inequity. They maintain that the Arab communities take care of their own elderly, and want no charity from the Israeli government. This explanation is only partly true, and is sadly reminiscent of the myth of the needs of the Jewish poor in the US. One need only visit the East Jerusalem branch of the Bank Leumi on a day that Social Security checks arrive. One teller commented, “It’s madness, absolute madness all day long. Those checks mean everything to those people.”

Many of Jerusalem’s Arab elderly do not even know that social services exist. Mary, an Arab social work student at Hebrew University, described one of her home visits:

I was there with another woman; we visited an elderly man in the Old City. After finally finding our way through the maze of streets to the right house we were shocked at what we found — an elderly man living not alone, but with 12 members of his family — a son, his wife and their ten children, all in two rooms. Is this what is meant by self-help? By Arab pride in helping their own? I don’t think so. What it comes down to is the pathetic state of social welfare services in East Jerusalem. They don’t provide enough money, they don’t provide enough workers, and most of all, they don’t provide any outreach — so of course families and the elderly do what they can for each other. We don’t have nursing homes here. And they turn it right back at us, and say, “Arabs don’t like to accept government help for the elderly.” It's a vicious circle.

The Social Worker

Mary’s frustration was shared by other Arab social workers. Her friend Ramonda is a fieldworker at the East Jerusalem bureau. “When people hear that I am the social worker for Bayt Hanina,” she said, “they can’t believe it. But that is only part of it. They don’t realize that there are 16 neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and six fieldworkers. They should only know how much area I really do cover. I can hardly keep track of it all.”

Ziyad Khazzan expressed a similar feeling:

In order to determine the amount of support which can be allocated to a hospitalized individual, the social worker visits the prospective client in the hospital, makes a case report, and brings it back to the bureau for evaluation. This is standard procedure — but it has not been enforced here in local hospitals. Decisions are made without formal evaluations; it is due to many things, including the fact that the fieldworkers are already overworked, and that we have no money for hospital social workers.

Hind is an Arab social worker who has worked under both the Israeli and Jordanian governments. “It’s true that social welfare was not good under the Jordanians,” she acknowledged.

They only provided limited material aid, and nothing else. But an Arab social worker gets tired of hearing things like, “Well, it’s better than under Hussein, isn’t it?” I am no longer satisfied with that answer. If it was bad in Jordan, it was bad for everything. Here, that is not so. Do you really think that the Israelis want to make it easy for our communities to develop and grow when that money can be used elsewhere?

She adds, “Here in Jerusalem, a good number of the Arab population does not speak Hebrew. Why not also explain the utility bills in Arabic? They refuse. Not only are we lacking in services, but what we do have is often inaccessible to us.”

Educating a generation of Arab social workers is also a point of political contention. Mary and Ramonda observed that there are no Palestinian Arabs from either East Jerusalem or the occupied territories in their social work training program.

As an Israeli Arab I am accepted at the university with much more ease than an Arab student from, let’s say, East Jerusalem. They are almost never accepted. But there are also schools of social work elsewhere. The Israelis don’t let them study here, so they go elsewhere; to the West Bank, the Arab world, Europe or the US. And then they find that there are no jobs for them here. I will eventually return to my community and work there. But the others? I don’t know what they will do.

Ramonda, placed in East Jerusalem, also remarked that the turnover of jobs in the municipality is very low. “They’ve almost all been there since 1967. What else can they do? They have no reason to leave. The Israelis have neither the money nor the inclination to create new positions for the Arab workers — so we’re left with the status quo.”

All of the workers expressed the same dismal feeling that change is further away than ever. “Who will support change?” one worker remarked.

Speaking to the administrators, directors, the minister of labor and social affairs himself, the prime minister — it’s like reporting the crime to the crook himself. And if we try to enlist the cooperation of outside agencies, we run up against a wall. The [Israeli] Union of Social Workers has refused to support us in a letter of protest. Money for social services that comes in from abroad is inevitably earmarked in advance, and never gets through. The existing voluntary agencies help where they can, but they have their hands tied, and are severely restricted in their activity here in East Jerusalem. So what is left? Ourselves, just ourselves.

“I keep telling myself,” added Mary, “‘Don’t make it a political issue. Don’t. It is a problem of social welfare. Don’t make it political in your own mind.’ But it doesn’t work any more; it is undeniably political. I pray for two things now — one, that new social workers will enter the system with the conscience and commitment to see that all the needy, elderly, impoverished and disadvantaged will have a chance; and the other, for peace.”


[1] State of Israel, “Israel’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs,” Department of International Relations, Jerusalem, June 1979, p. 1.
[2] Department of Social and Family Services, Fiscal Department Guide, Jerusalem Municipality, 1979-1980, pp. 18, 20.
[3] The exchange rate in March 1979 was 20 shekels = $1.
[4] Budget Book for the Department of Social and Family Services (caseload raw figures only), p. “dalet.” For comparative purposes: South Jerusalem has 1.38 times the caseload of West Jerusalem; it receives 1.4 times the allocation for elderly services. South Jerusalem has 2.65 times the caseload of East Jerusalem, and receives 56 times the allocation for those services. North Jerusalem has 1.27 times the caseload of South Jerusalem; it receives 1.09 times the allocation for elderly services. North Jerusalem has 3.37 times the caseload of East Jerusalem, and receives 61 times the allocation for these services.

How to cite this article:

Dori Aronson "The Politics of Social Welfare," Middle East Report 146 (May/June 1987).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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