The State of Israel has a backyard — an expanse that is large, neglected, squalid and bleak. Too many oppressed, destitute, wretched families and citizens live in this yard. The state also boasts a front-and-center, well-lit show-window in which it displays its all-powerful moguls or tycoons — they are called tycoons even in Hebrew, as if referring to the Japanese military commanders of the nineteenth century. They earn more in one month than nearby residents in the neighborhood across the road earn in their entire lives.
The gaps between rich and poor in Israel constitute a ticking time-bomb: when the countdown ends and the fuse lights, it will be too late. This is an inconceivable gap between rich and poor, between residents of the country’s center and its periphery, between sectors and ethnic groups. Today’s Israel has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the industrialized world. There is no more room under the rug, into which to sweep the facts and figures.
Although the issue of teacher salaries is important, that is not the reason I am addressing this issue. Instead, I am deeply concerned about the circumstances of our school students. The staggering gaps in wealth and capital, consumption and culture do not skip over the classrooms. Poor school students learn less, hungry students understand less, and students in remote, outlying regions are more neglected. There is no doubt that these inequalities have direct, immediate ramifications for the students. Those who start off under significant disadvantages — due to distorted priorities — will not succeed in catching up to the rest. Those whose starting-point lags far, far behind the others have little chance to succeed in the race of life in general, and in scholastic success.
An egalitarian ideology prevailed in the generation of the country's founders. That era is over. Recently, the former CEO of the Bank of Israel announced that she is waiving her bonus of more than 3 million shekels. For some reason, I don’t find myself feeling sorry for her, but I definitely have mercy on the 10-year-old I saw running around in Jaffa between the stores and garbage cans collecting bottles and cans to earn a few additional shekels for his family. True, Israeli society has not been a just and egalitarian society for many years, and we cannot turn the clock back in time. But it is truly within our power to at least correct glaring injustices and restore some kind of balance.
The tycoons, oligarchs, and moguls, wages of champions and professionals of debt restructuring — call them what you will — are not the ones who make the world go round. Even if they don’t inflate their salaries to the hilt, disproportionately and unjustifiably, the stars will shine in the evenings. In a touching story by Elizabeth Gilbert, a story that later became the successful film Eat, Pray, Love, there is an insight that also applies to these sorts of billionaires. “Sit quietly for now and cease your relentless participation. Watch what happens. The birds do not crash dead out of the sky in mid-flight, after all. The trees do not wither and die, the rivers do not run red with blood. Life continues to go on….”
In order to forestall the next terrible explosion, we must return to the boundaries of reason. If we truly seek life in a cooperative society, we must return to reasonable proportions, or at least tolerable ones. Don’t worry: The trees won’t wither and die. Even without the tycoons, with our own hands we are darkening the well-tended path of enlightenment and education, the lanes of freedom and justice. We are abandoning tens of thousands of girls and boys to the squalid backyard, that filthy, abandoned and forgotten expanse.
Yossi Wasserman is the chairman of the Teachers Union