Israelis donate millions to the poor after PM’s pledge of virus stipends for all

TV host Guy Lerer sets up crowdfunding campaign to redirect promised grants from ‘those who need less to those who really are in need’

Hundreds of Israelis have donated millions of Shekels to this crowdfunding campaign to redistribute their government coronavirus stipends to the most needy. (Screenshot)
Hundreds of Israelis have donated millions of Shekels to this crowdfunding campaign to redistribute their government coronavirus stipends to the most needy. (Screenshot)

Following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unveiling of a widely criticized plan to cut checks to all Israelis amid the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of people have donated millions of shekels in an effort to redirect the money to those in need.

Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that the government would distribute stipends to all Israelis, regardless of financial standing. Anyone above 18 will receive NIS 750 ($217). Families with one child will receive NIS 2,000 ($580), those with two NIS 2,500 ($725) and those with three children or more will get NIS 3,000 ($870).

While Netanyahu explained the stimulus program as motivated by the “need to get the wheels moving and make sure nobody falls between the cracks,” it was met with criticism by top finance officials, members of his government and by many citizens.

In the wake of Netanyahu’s announcement, Channel 13’s late-night news program “HaTzinor” opened up a crowdfunding campaign for people interested in redistributing the grants from “those who need less to those who really are in need.”

Israeli journalist and television presenter Guy Lerer attends a protest calling the government to legalizing marijuana in Tel Aviv on August 1, 2019. (Flash90)

“We are inundated with difficult stories,” the show’s staff wrote in a post on its official Facebook page. “People who do not receive assistance from the state at all. Children who are disgracefully hungry. Families whose electricity has been cut off. Let’s now pass on to them the grants we have received from the government.”

As of Friday morning, some 5,633 Israelis had donated NIS 2,772,112 ($803,767) to the program’s crowdfunding campaign on the online GiveBack platform.

The program’s host Guy Lerer wrote on Twitter that the money is going to people like Julia, a 15-year old girl who he said has to use candles to light the apartment for her four brothers after the electric company shut off their power.

He said that while she had to deal with hunger and the shame of hiding her situation from her classmates, “the hardest” part of her situation is “what happens until she lights the candles and the kids scream and cry in the dark.”

“But a few minutes ago we called Julia’s mother and told her that the debt to the electricity company would be covered by people who passed on their grant to her. I wish you could have heard her voice on the phone,” Lerer tweeted.

After his crowdfunding campaign passed the NIS 1 million ($290,073) threshold, Lerer tweeted that he could “see in front of my eyes all the things this money is going to do and it makes my fingers tremble as I type.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the media at a press conference in Jerusalem on July 15, 2020 (screenshot)

Channel 13 news calculated Thursday that NIS 1.8 billion ($522 million) of the NIS 6 million in promised handouts will go to families with monthly income of over NIS 22,000 ($6,390), including over 200,000 families with income over NIS 40,000 ($12,775) per month.

It noted that 114,000 Israelis with assets over $1 million, 16,000 Israelis with $5-50 million in assets, and 50 Israelis with assets of over $500 million will also receive the handouts.

According to a Channel 12 news poll published Thursday, 56 percent of Israelis believe Netanyahu’s handouts for all package — which has been panned by top finance officials, government ministers and many citizens — is primarily motivated by political considerations, versus 36% who believe it was conceived out of a desire to juice the economy. Another 8% didn’t know.

Amir Yaron, the governor of the Bank of Israel, on Thursday criticized Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz’s stimulus plan, saying there were better ways than universal handouts to help the country weather the pandemic.

“I think there are better ways and more efficient ways to increase demand,” Yaron told Army Radio. “We have a safety net and we do need to increase demand, but I think there are more efficient ways.”

Yaron, who said that Bank of Israel officials had been consulted about the plan in its initial stages but only heard of the final result through the media, also said that it did have “positive aspects” in terms of boosting economic activity, but “could have been targeted a tad better.”

The plan also faced pushed back from top Finance Ministry officials.

According to Channel 12, during a meeting discussing the stipends, Shaul Meridor, the head of the Finance Ministry’s budget division, vocally asserted that they were “not a very smart way to distribute money” and warned that Israel needed “to be careful not to be Venezuela,” referring to the country’s difficulties in raising money.

A representative of the country’s self-employed workers, many of whom have been hit hard financially by the pandemic, came out against the idea of government stipends for all.

“It is a surreal decision to give money to people who don’t need it, instead of people who are crying out,” said Roi Cohen, Roi Cohen, according to Channel 12. “The independent sector is bleeding. Enough of the cheap populism and shooting from the hip. The streets are on fire. We need real solutions.”

Israelis from various industries call for financial support from the Israeli government amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, at a protest in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ministers on Sunday approved one-off stipends of up to NIS 7,500 ($2,170) for self-employed Israelis and business owners. Netanyahu said the average payment, received later in the week, was some NIS 4,700.

Thousands of small business owners and self-employed Israeli demonstrated against the government’s economic policies in Tel Aviv last Saturday night and another protest is expected this weekend.

As of Wednesday, Employment Service figures showed some 853,843 Israelis out of work, with the unemployment rate topping 21 percent.

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