Three months ago, the world celebrated International Senior Citizen’s Day. On that day, the Central Bureau of Statistics of Israel published data showing that, for the first time, at the end of 2017, the population of senior citizens (65+ years old) in Israel passed one million people : 566,000 women and 452,000 men. 42% of the senior citizens are above 75 years old. In addition, 87.2% were Jewish senior citizens (65+) whereas 74.5% were Arab senior citizens. Of these 12% of the Arab senior citizens and 31% of the Jewish senior citizens live on their own.
A key problem for this age can be poverty. In Israel, the basic monthly pension monthly of around 2,000 shekels is very low, considering the high cost of living in Israel. 25% of Israeli senior citizens are considered poor. On November 28th the Israeli Parliament narrowly failed to pass a law to double this to equal the minimum monthly wage of 4000 shekels.
The population of my field site of Dar al-Hawa in Jerusalem, have specific problems. Although they rarely live alone, Israel is an expensive place to live as the monthly expenses of gas, electricity, housing and food, medications are high. But to apply for an increase in welfare stipends means encountering a complex bureaucracy, which then becomes a major part of one’s life, especially when digitization has made it even more inaccessible.
In the past few months, I found these issues has come to define my role as a participant observer ethnographer. My job has been to translate language and help with the issue of digitalization. People need help in reading, writing and sending letters to all kinds of official authorities – among them The National Insurance Institute of Israel (Bituach Leumi). The key problem is that although Arabic is the second ‘official’ language in Israel, many official websites and forms (both offline and online) do not exist in Arabic at all, or they exist in part. There may be some explanation in Arabic, but you still have to fill the form in Hebrew. In a survey among Arab senior citizens only 53% estimate that they speak “very good”, Hebrew 49% but 15% do not know how to read or write in Hebrew. Therefore, part of “participating observation” is teaching my Informants Hebrew.
Knowledge of Hebrew is particularly poor among those who have lived on the Jordanian side of the pre-1967 border, and for women who are less likely to have worked within Israel.
Hadeel (71) lived on the Israeli side of Dar al-Hawa and holds Israeli citizenship, and Samah (73) lived on the Jordanian side of Dar al-Hawa until 1967 and holds permanent residency status, but both asked for my assistance with Israeli bureaucracy. Hadeel and Samah are good friends.
On my first visit at Hadeel’s home, she asked me to call to The National Insurance Institute of Israel, asking them to add money to her monthly stipend. We called them together and were informed that Hadeel needs to submit her request online. Since Hadeel has neither smartphone, computer or internet, we used my smartphone to apply online.
Hadeel’s phone (photo by Maya)
After we applied, Hadeel received, “for the first time” she told me, an official letter from the National Social Services, written in Hebrew, outlining her entitlement to home assistance, but this must be renewed after three months.
Samah’s is a widow for more than 10 years. All her life she paid her taxes, but recently she received a letter in Hebrew from the National Social Services saying they suspect that she is no longer living within Israeli territory. Samah brought me this letter and asked me to translate it. When reading it, I realized how severe this problem could be, since if she failed to convince the authorities that she resides in Israel, she will lose both her monthly stipend and access to health-care services. Samah has had to turn to a lawyer for advice and support. For these citizens there are three interconnected problems that dominate my fieldwork. Their lack of Hebrew, their lack of knowledge about digital communication, and above all their constant fear that they will lose their rights. All of these reveal the basic inequalities of living within this field site of Dar al-Hawa.
Hadeel and Samah sharing breakfast in a fieldtrip to the city of Aka (photo by Maya)
See here an update table of pension rates: https://www.btl.gov.il/English%20Homepage/Benefits/Old%20Age%20Insurance/Pages/Pensionrates.aspx
 https://m.knesset.gov.il/News/PressReleases/Pages/press28.11.18va.aspx (in Hebrew)