Israeli economic growth disguises social inequality
TEL AVIV - With the lowest unemployment rate in the Mediterranean, Israel can give the impression of having achieved an economic miracle.
But its growth can obscure a darker side in poorer neighbourhoods where families' struggles with the cost of living are acute.
At 10:30 am, the first of the pensioners begin arriving at Lasova (Satisfied in Hebrew), a soup kitchen in south Tel Aviv, paying the young receptionist one shekel (25 cents) before taking a place at one of the tables.
Today's menu: pasta, soup, salad, rolls, chicken and soft drinks.
The blades of the fans whirl from the high ceilings of the erstwhile synagogue, brought back to life by the hundreds of people coming for a hot meal every day, and Mazal makes her entrance.
The bespectacled redhead launches into her life story while eating, from her rough beginnings to the British sweetheart who sends her text messages in Hebrew with the help of Google Translate.
Each month Mazal receives a pension of 2,600 shekels ($740, 670 euros). Her part-time cleaning work brings in another 2,200 shekels ($625, 565 euros), but "it's not enough".
"You've got rent, you've got electricity, a phone, other expenses," the 66-year-old sighed. "Everything is expensive."
A divorced mother of two and grandmother of four, Mazal found herself homeless a few years ago, squatting near Tel Aviv's bus station for a year-and-a-half before the state provided her with social housing in a small city outside of Israel's economic capital.
But she still comes to Lasova several times a week to escape her solitude and enjoy a square meal.
"I can't afford to buy food. I don't have money," she said.
"I have a sick brother with cancer who I help. He can't move around much and I buy things for him. I also help my daughters and my grandchildren sometimes too.
"You can't live like this," she said.
Hundreds of meals are served at Lasova daily to senior citizens, African migrants, the unemployed and the homeless under the watchful eye of Ravit Reichman.
"They are the invisible people of Israel, who nobody cares about," said Reichman, sporting short bleached hair, tattoos and leather boots.
Reichman ran kitchens in the military for over two decades before joining Lasova.
Nearby, two new towers are being built, with skyscrapers dotting the landscape toward the beach.
Innovation has helped boost Israel's economy over the past 15 years to the point that the Zionist state has joined the leading pack of industrialised countries as far as growth and jobs are concerned.
In July, the unemployment rate fell again to 3.7 percent. The average salary stood at 11,175 shekels a month -- over 2,800 euros, or $3,175.
But according to Israel's National Insurance Institute, almost 1.8 million people of the country's nearly nine million residents live below the poverty line.
And by the standards of the OECD -- the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development -- the "start-up nation" is lagging behind in terms of social equality.
"It's a paradox since we're living the 15 years of Israel's golden economic age, in which the per capita income has almost doubled and passed some European states," said Gilles Darmon, director of the Latet NGO that distributes food to organisations such as Lasova nationwide.
Year after year, studies show two groups topping the poverty data - indigenous Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox Jews, both with swiftly growing demographics.
Among Palestinians, many women prefer to stay home to raise children.
Among the ultra-Orthodox, men work less in order to devote themselves to religious studies, according to John Gal, co-author of a poverty report issued by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.
"The moment you have two or three children then it is problematic," he said.
"The cost of living is high, particularly housing. On the other hand health care, education and transportation are less expensive than in other advanced economies."
In 2011, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living, pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to announce new housing plans.
Ahead of Israel's September 17 elections, the social issue seems to be off the radar, eclipsed by debates over security, religion and state, and Netanyahu's legal woes.
In its latest report, the OECD warns of the "growing share" of "working poor" in Israel.
After his meal at Lasova, Alexander, a 45-year-old temporary worker, returns to the street with a full belly and a shekel less.
"I still have four shekels on me. It's really hard," he said. "Once I pay my rent I have nothing left. It's the same for friends of mine who earn 4,000-5,000 shekels a month."
And the elections?
"It's a battle between guys to see who's strongest."