By Rabbi Neil JANES, The Liberal Jewish Synagogue
Food banks are a disgrace. It is a disgrace that one of the top 10 economies in the world has an increasing level of food poverty. And food banks are a disgrace because they point at the failure of our politicians to find a way of ensuring no one goes without food.
It is a betrayal of the social contract to leave thousands of people dependent on the kindness of strangers for something as essential as food.
There is a body of thought that suggests providing for the basic need of food is a duty of government – with its origins dating back, in England, to the same period as the Magna Carta.
The eminent professor of International Human Rights Law, Geraldine Van Bueren QC, wrote on the UK Human Rights Blog: “The Charter of the Forest’s right to food is as fundamental a right as the Magna Carta’s right to jury trial and both require equal statutory protection”.
It makes moral sense. If we were to identify aspects of life that are key to vulnerability, on our list would be: safety, housing, clothing and food. Our own religious texts point out time and again that hunger is a core concern. Famine is always a trigger for upheaval and the prophets rail against societies that do not protect the hungry.
In Genesis, Joseph grasps this aspect of good governance to the extent that he effectively advises the nationalisation of Egypt’s food resources to guarantee food for the hungry in the seven lean years.
By highlighting food as something essential about which government is obligated, we avoid the possibility of charity being used as a solution to hunger.
The problem with charity is that the cause must be deserving enough for someone to voluntarily give and it is vulnerable to something else coming along that is ‘more’ deserving. Moreover, if the donors run out money or become tired of giving, the beneficiaries lose out.
Had your own family fallen on hard times – and it can happen to anyone – the last thing you’d want is for the public to decide whether they were more worthy of support than another charitable cause falling through the letterbox.
That’s the problem with charity and food banks and why there’s no way food banks can be regarded as an acceptable part of the architecture of welfare support.
Of course the problem is complicated: we’re dealing with increases in the cost of food and utilities; in-work poverty; food wastage; poor skills to manage personal finances; national debt and so on. And actually delays and changes to the benefits system are only part of this picture.
But drawing on Jewish sources, I regard it as a basic responsibility of government to ensure the welfare state functions effectively and fairly; that includes the redistribution of taxes to essential services and to the needy in a judicious and balanced way.
In Judaism described in the Talmud more than 1,000 years ago, pre-welfare state, there was a system of collecting money and redistributing it the needy and providing for essential services in one’s town.
The obligation to give fell on those who had lived for a certain period of time in a given locale and there was a hierarchy of needs. This Talmudic system of charity is a precursor to the organised welfare state. The collection and redistribution was to be done in an unimpeachable way that was efficient, well balanced and compassionately sought to lift the needy out of their straits.
While charity was given in a personal capacity, the Talmud understood the system worked best when organised collectively – the combined ‘pooling of resource’ having greater impact and the collective redistribution ensured the whim of the individual didn’t lead to real need being ignored.
I am a strong proponent of charitable giving. But I challenge the notion that today our politicians can pass the buck on their responsibility for a fair and efficient collection and redistribution of tax to the services and individuals that need it. It is immoral for them to gradually hand over this duty to food banks.
To allow our politicians, of all persuasions, to get away with it is permitting an abdication of their responsibilities as our elected representatives. My Liberal Judaism, with the prophetic imperative at its heart, cannot let that happen without speaking out.
• Rabbi Neil Janes can be followed on Twitter @rabbineiljanes