President Reuven Rivlin engaged in an impromptu dialogue with protesters who were saying that as self-employed people, they have not received support from the government in the shutdown of the economy.
“I heard the protest of the self-employed outside Beit HaNasi [the President’s Residence] and invited its leaders to come and talk. This is an emergency and I promised them, and all self-employed people, that policy-makers will hear what they say. We need to see the big picture without abandoning anyone,” Rivlin tweeted on Sunday.
The small business owners and freelancers arrived at Beit HaNasi after protesting outside the Knesset, and the director-general of Beit HaNasi came out to hear their complaints. When he finished the meeting he was holding as the demonstration was taking place, the president asked to meet the demonstrators, and two of the leaders came to meet him, according to a statement from Rivlin’s office.
Lucy, a teacher at a private kindergarten for children up to the age of three, 45 years old and a mother of one, from Ramat Gan, said to the president, “We are not getting anything, not even the grants that were announced we would get. Our requests have been denied and we got nothing.
“In the meantime, we are just paying out and our debts are mounting, and they expect us to go back to work with small groups of kids when the staff are very afraid they will get the virus. There is no organized plan and they tell us – go and deal with it. Our businesses are our lives, and we are bringing up the next generation, the future. The country took part of our profits without question, and we paid what we owed, but what happens to us now? All we are asking for is a plan, to know where we are headed.”
Abir Kara explained to the president, “60% of employees are in small businesses. We need support, not just in this crisis, but now more than ever. We are a forgotten part of society, and at this difficult time, it is very important that the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office work quicker because what is happening could lead to anarchy. We expect our elected representatives to set a personal example and show us how they are also bearing the burden.”
The president responded: “We need to relate to your complaints because your protest is justified, but threats are not appropriate. I know that until the children go back to school, parents cannot go back to work and I know that we cannot protect the public at your expense. I am meeting with the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Health and the Minister of Defense and GOC Homefront Command and, first of all, I promise you that everything you say will be said to the policy-makers. I understand that the Finance Ministry intends on improving its grants and I understand that you are in a tough situation with the banks and I promise you, I will do everything possible to relay your protest.”
There are over half a million self-employed business owners, many of whose businesses closed immediately without any possibility of working from home when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Expenses have continued, including rent, insurance, taxes and more, while income has stopped entirely. They are requesting equal rights for employees when calculating unemployment benefits and to establish a compensation fund for businesses.
Outside the Knesset, Roee Cohen, president of the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses (LAHAV), scathingly criticized the government’s handling of the matter:
“The incompetence of the Israeli government in its program providing assistance to the self-employed and small businesses causes us to repeatedly risk thousands of people at demonstrations in order to shock decision-makers and, above all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“The weird plan that was developed in the Finance Ministry reflects its unreceptive nature and lack of understanding of the scale of the crisis in the business sector. There are no other words but to say that the Finance Ministry and the Budget Department are leading us to an unprecedented economic catastrophe,” Cohen was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as warning.
Similarly, Yerushalayim Mayor Moshe Lion wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman repeating an offer that the Municipality “is ready to take responsibility for the Mahane Yehuda open-air market,” including putting in place “municipal supervision to ensure that Health Ministry guidelines are enforced” while stores are open.
“The economic losses incurred by market traders in Mahane Yehuda, mostly defined as small and medium-sized businesses, are very large and there is a real concern for the total economic collapse of many of them,” Lion wrote in a letter quoted by the Post.
At the Knesset Finance Committee on Sunday, Accountant-General Rony Hizkiyahu promised that government-secured loans for small businesses would be granted at a faster pace during the coming week, now that Pesach is over. “Hundreds of applications” will be considered every day, he said.