Middle East

Middle East

Israel: Single Mothers’ Movement

Vicki Knafo
Vicki Knafo (Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP-Getty Images).

Vicki Knafo walked 200 kilometers, from Mitzpeh Ramon, south of Beersheva, to Jerusalem. Since July 7, Knafo, a 43-year-old divorced mother of three, has been camped across from the Finance Ministry, demanding to meet with Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has refused to see her. The standoff sparked a protest that has grown among single mothers and captured the attention of the press.

Knafo, a part-time cook in a day-care center, received a monthly income supplement of 2,500 shekels (US$565). When she was notified that her supplement was being cut by 1,200 shekels ($271) in June, she decided to protest. In the process, she has gone from one TV interview to the next, appeared on every radio station, and answered hundreds of phone calls. She told reporters Ruth Sinai and Jonathan Lis of Ha’aretz (July 10), “I never wanted to be a symbol. I look forward to when I can go back to being Vicki from Mitzpeh.”

By late July, about 600 single mothers had joined Knafo, creating a small tent city in the shadow of the Knesset. The Israeli media have dubbed her the undisputed leader of the single mothers’ movement.

The outpouring of anger caught the government by surprise. Netanyahu’s frustration with the swelling numbers at the tent city prompted him to shout at reporters, “A woman who walks 200 kilometers can work in packing!” (Yediot Aharonot, July 18).

Israel’s low-income families typically get little media coverage. The single mothers’ protest, however, has plunged the press into a prolonged display of class consciousness in a country with deep socialist roots. In a July 23 Ma’ariv op-ed, Nadav Ha’etzni condemned “the stratum of society that doesn’t want to work. If they were ashamed to be out of work,” Ha’etzni wrote, “they wouldn’t find it hard to get a job.”

Other writers were cynical about Netanyahu’s way with numbers. Larry Derfner wrote in his July 23 commentary for the Jerusalem Post: “As soon as the single mothers started breathing down Bibi’s neck, presto! Thousands and thousands of jobs materialized for divorcees in the desert with three kids.” A July 16 Hatzofeh editorial, observing that the finance minister had already been compelled by the backlash to renege on several points of his economic plan, wondered why he had included such “unimplementible items.”

Some politicians, unlike Netanyahu, have given the mothers’ movement a sympathetic ear. On July 21, President Moshe Katsav met with the protesters at his residence. Ha’aretz reported that Knafo sat next to the president as the mothers told him about their futile efforts to find work.

At the end of July, Globes published a “Knafo index” (July 31) based on a poll gauging public opinion about the protests and the state’s handling of the movement. Even if, as the poll data indicate, the majority of Israelis view the single mothers’ movement as evanescent and fragmented, many regard the government’s response as a disturbing repudiation of Israel’s traditional social safety net.