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Coping With the Lull
by Judy Lash Balint
December 20, 2001

In the lull between terror attacks (the question is not IF there will be another, but WHEN) Israel is struggling to cope with its domestic concerns.

Unfortunately for some members of Knesset, the lull has coincided with budget talks. The recent spate of grisly Arab terrror had eclipsed any other news for weeks, but now we're forced to deal with the economic and social disasters that continue to plague this country.

Unemployment figures just announced tell some of the story. Almost 10 percent of the workforce is currently unemployed--the highest number recorded since the establishment of the state. Since April there's been a steady 0.1 percent increase every month.

Not that we need the statistics to tell us. All of us know people who have been recently laid off, or are fearful of the fall of the next outsource ax. I have friends who are attorneys, high tech marketing managers, transportation engineers and office managers who are currently unemployed. This round of cutbacks has hit all sectors, not just blue collar workers.

Meantime, strikes are breaking out all over to protest the proposed budget cuts. Today it's the turn of the Negev towns. Workers in Beersheva, Dimona and Ofakim are closing down their towns today to let the government know what they think of the repeal of the Negev Law that granted special tax breaks to residents of the Negev.

Yesterday, a group of vocal, physically challenged Israelis broke into the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, staging a sit-in in their wheelchairs to demand that their monthly allocations rise to the level of the minimum wage.

But poor Finance Minister Silvan Shalom has to find some way to cut 6.15 billion shekel from the 2002 budget. A good place to start would be the superfluous ministries who employ ministers, deputy ministers and an entire workforce of pkidim (clerks) all trying to look busy as they wait to reach retirement age and a cushy pension.

Even US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer is getting in on the act with budget advice. Speaking at the annual meeting of the Israeli Center for Management yesterday, Kurzer told the group that Israel cannot live with a budget deficit of 4 percent of GDP, which could occur if budget cuts are not made. He pleaded with the government to increase allocations to Arabs, Bedouin and development towns.

The one bright spot this week has been the weather. Precisely because it's not been bright and sunny. Rain has deluged the entire country adding a few precious millimeters to the severely depleted Kinneret, Israel's main reservoir. We're still more than 180 centimeters below the red line, but this season has a distinctly more winter-like feel than winters past. There's snow on Mt. Hermon and the prospect of a real ski season up there.

For me, a former Londoner and Seattleite, the cool, damp is comfortingly familiar. Back in the old country, a highlight of my day was a brisk half hour walk around a traffic-free park on a peninsula sticking out into Lake Washington. Here in Jerusalem it's been difficult to duplicate the empty, tree-lined footpath with calm lake water lapping to one side. But a rainy morning stroll through Jerusalem neighborhoods has other compensations. It's far more interesting!

Today, even though it's not so cold, (around 13 degrees Centigrade) some of my neighbors are decked out as if they're facing a Toronto winter. Down parkas, boots, gloves and umbrellas are de rigeur. Every conversation along the street starts with a comment about the cold. In the San Simon park I pass two Arab gardeners bundled up in sweaters, scarves and wool hats, their fingers wrapped around glasses of hot Turkish coffee.

On a nearby street, men carrying their tallit (prayer shawl) bags encased in protective plastic hurry in and out of the Shtiyblach. The Shtiyblach is a unique synagogue where men can find a minyan (prayer quorum) forming every fifteen minutes around the clock. As I pass by, a loud argument breaks out between a resident of an adjacent apartment building and a synagogue late-comer who's trying to park his car on the pavement to dash in for morning prayers.

Back on the main street, a traffic jam forms as a "suspicious object" alert has caused police sappers to clear the road. This is a routine occurence in all Jerusalem neighborhoods, as alert residents do not hesitate to call police if they see anything remotely suspicious. After the object is harmlessly reeled in to the police van, pedestrians and cars resume their rush hour frenzy.

The rain continues to pour down so I duck into the supermarket, just managing to avoid bumping into an old woman loaded down with groceries. She emerges into the deluge wearing nothing more than a sweater and cotton skirt, and I realize that not everyone can afford to buy a winter wardrobe for the relatively short cold, wet season.

The lady at the cheese counter, who is generally upbeat and chatty, greets me with a sigh and a comment about our terrible economic circumstances. My next stop is the cafe next door where the smell of fresh croissants wafting out of the door makes it impossible to pass by. There, over a passable latte and one of those delectable croissants (yes, I know, the goal of the brisk walk was just completely negated), I run into a French immigrant I know from my ulpan days. He tells me about the frightening rise in anti-Semitic incidents in his former homeland and an increasing acceptance in polite society of overt expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment. I'm hearing the same thing from British friends, where the French ambassador to London just caused an international incident by announcing at a dinner party that the current troubles in the world were caused by "that shitty little country Israel."

Still, all these troubles are infinitely preferable to the news of the murder of innocent Israelis we've become almost numbed to over the past few weeks. Scores of attacks against Jews have occurred since Arafat's speech disavowing terrorism last Sunday. Mercifully, none of them has resulted in death, and thus the incidents go largely unreported to all but the most inveterate Israel internet news junkies.

So, we'll enjoy the lull while it lasts, and no doubt look back longingly at the domestic turmoil when the next bomb explodes.