Israel: Beyond the conflict

A reporter visits an educational and social centre sanwiched between Israeli and Palestinian factions where the enemy is not terrorism but poverty…

Maher abu Sneineh clocks the Israeli security services pursuing him and speeds up the car to evade capture. The Shin Bet has been on his tail since November 2004, suspecting him of having plotted a suicide bomb attack.
Having spotted their man in the centre of the West Bank town of Qalqilya, Shin Bet operatives – with IDF and Israeli police backup – are in no mood to let the Hamas man's career as a fugitive continue. They cock their weapons and give chase.

Meanwhile, not 30 minutes’ drive from the security barrier, Jaffan children tuck into what is likely to be their only hot meal of the day. Chocolate fondue is being served for dessert in the chaotic dining room at the Institute for the Advancement of Education in Jaffa.

The ancient fishing port, now engulfed by its sprawling neighbour Tel Aviv, is Israel's poorest town.

Drug-abuse and dealing are rife.

The town that gave its name to the renowned variety of oranges is nowadays known within Israel for its poverty.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's war on terror has battlefields across Israel, but the Jaffa Institute bills itself as operating on the front line in other wars: against poverty, crime and drugs.

It is a place where Arab and Jewish children go to release stress and frustration caused not by the constant terror threat, but by the everyday grind of social deprivation.

The Jaffa Institute and Abu Sneineh have little in common apart from a shared enemy – the Israeli Government.

The budget passed at the end of last month will do little to revive a welfare state on the brink of collapse and an education system struggling to find the money to modernise.

Three previous budgets cut down on handouts in favour of free-market and reduced state intervention.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's latest effort – passed by 58 to 36 votes on 30 March– shaved more than a billion dollars off government spending, with education set to lose $159m.

Although Netanyahu chose not to follow the trend of cutting back welfare, squeezing the education budget can only make the Jaffa Institute's job tougher.

"The government has its priorities, but I think they're wrong," says Institute co-founder and Chairman Rabbi Dr David Portowicz. "I think the government should invest in children who will be this country's future. Israel is losing a very important human resource."

The budget came amid warnings from analysts that the ranks of Israel's poor are swelling.

Figures released in November by the country's National Insurance Institute confirmed the trend: 105,000 more people slipped below the poverty line in 2003. Now 22.4 per cent of the population, 1.4m Israelis live on less than 1,763 Shekels, or around £200, a month.

Thirty-one per cent of the country's youth - 652,000 children - are now defined as poor.

While foreign government aid is channeled into the security services and the economy recoils from the combined effect of four years' recession and violence, Jaffa cannot rely on the Knesset to break the cycle of poverty.

The tooled-up Shin Bet neutralised the threat Abu Sneineh posed, but in a different war the Jaffa Institute is acting with scant government support to reduce the casualties.

"We're trying to give kids opportunities other kids don't have," says American-born Rabbi Portowicz. "We're trying to exchange drugs for text books."

When the school day finishes at midday, 4,000 of Jaffa's children choose the Institute's educational programmes and social activities over an afternoon at home.

Its programmes promote anti-violence and drug awareness; professional teachers are on hand to coach pupils during homework workshops. R

esources are available in Arabic as well as Hebrew and Arab-Israeli children who speak Hebrew are integrated with their Jewish contemporaries.

The domestic situation for some children in Jaffa is deemed by the social services to be so precarious and they are moved out of their homes.

If space permits, they can find a place among 330 other 13 to 18-year-olds at the Institute's Bet Shemesh Residential centre.

The boarding school's figures outdo the Jaffan averages across the board: compared to a mainstream drop-out rate of 70 per cent, four per cent of the Bet Shemesh students leave before graduating, and 97 per cent go on to gain a high school diploma, while 13 per cent graduate from state-run schools.

In a community where 50 per cent of residents rely on welfare payments to get by and the child abuse rate outstrips the national average eight times over, the Institute's efforts are now widely recognised.

In 2001 – nearly 20 years after starting out – Portowicz and his colleagues were awarded the President's Prize for Most Outstanding Voluntary Organisation.

The Rabbi gratefully accepted the award, thought he adds: "These are all wonderful honours but they don't pay the bills."

From serving 16 youngsters when it was founded in 1982, the Institute now costs about $6m a year to run.

Ten per cent of that comes from the Tel Aviv municipality and a further five per cent is raised from charging nominal fees – a charge which, averaging only 25 shekels or about £3, a month the rabbi justifies by saying that, when people have to pay for something they appreciate it more.

It is another American sentiment which drives fundraising for the remaining 85 per cent of costs.

The Institute is dependent on philanthropic donations for its survival; 40 per cent of those come from the United States. And a Friends of the Jaffa Institute organisation has been set up in the UK.

The back pages of the Bet Shemesh prospectus detail the 'dedication opportunities' donators can take up.

It will set you back about £1.5m to have your name put over the high school's entrance, though for a more modest donation of £750, the kitchen's frying equipment can be yours, or for £1,000 your mark could be put on a meat processor.

The front-lines in the wars on terror and poverty have merged in the past.

A Molotov cocktail was thrown into the Institute's compound at the start of the latest Intifada in October 2000.

An on-site dental clinic was totally destroyed. Violent Arab and Jewish demonstrators took to the streets that month, sandwiching the Institute in between the two factions.

Portowicz took the decision to put another guard on the door to increase security, but more was done in the classroom.

Individual and group-therapy sessions were increased, and group activities dealing specifically with the conflict were brought onto the curriculum.

The measures seem to do the trick; Portowicz says there is no noticeable increase in violence during the toughest times of conflict outside. The Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, has described the Institute as a "model of coexistence" which "transcends ethnic lines".

More than a quarter of the children in Jaffa use one of the Institute's seven centres, the most recent of which opened earlier this year to cater for another 250 young people.

Despite the financial struggle, Portowicz has no intention of halting the growth; "I'd like every kid we can get our hands on," he says.

Rejecting cynicism that his programmes might be brainwashing children to be Zionistic drones, he shoots back, "No way! We're brainwashing them to have aspirations. We want them to think about their futures as doctors or lawyers."

Before they can take up jobs in the professions, even before going into higher education, the Institute's Jewish children will have to serve time in the armed forces. Introductions in Israel often begin with the question "Pleased to meet you, and where did you serve?" The Jewish children will at least be able to answer.

The IDF is billed as a great equalizer – there are no commissions into the officer ranks.

Instead all officers start off as rank-and-file soldiers and get appointed to positions of responsibility.

But, when a teacher giving a tour round the Institute enters a computer room and remarks: "There are Jews and Arabs in here and I can't tell them apart by looking," it becomes clear Israel has found a greater leveller in poverty.

The war on terror will always take precedence over the war on poverty.

This means both Israel's equalisers are there for the long haul, as the IDF gets the money which might otherwise rebuild a welfare state.