Trapped in Resistance: Collective Struggle through Welfare Fraud in Israel

Published date01 December 2014
Date01 December 2014
Trapped in Resistance: Collective Struggle through
Welfare Fraud in Israel
Shiri Regev-Messalem
This paper offers a qualitative empirical examination of the noncompliance
of Israeli female welfare recipients with welfare laws and authorities. The
paper demonstrates that their behavior, defined as “welfare fraud” by the law,
is a limited form of collective resistance to the Israeli welfare state. Although
the acts of welfare fraud that the women in my study engaged in entail a
political claim against the state, the relationship between these acts and notions
of collectivity is very constricted in form. The women’s collectivity is shown to
be constrained by the welfare authorities’ invasive and pervasive investigation
practices and methods. Due to fear of disclosure to the authorities, the women
emerged as deliberately isolating themselves from their immediate environ-
ment and potential members of their like-situated collective. This weakens the
connection between the women’s acts of resistance and their collectivity, and
prevents their acts of resistance from driving social change, trapping them in
their harsh conditions and existence.
I’ll work under the table all my life, even if I know I’ll be a
millionaire. I’ll keep collecting welfare my whole life . . . I’ll do it
because of the anger inside of me . . . due to the injustice, their
stupid rules, for making us slaves to their criteria. (Nitza, Israeli
female welfare recipient)
Nitza, a single mother,is 33 years old with three young children.
She has been living on welfare for several years, since the birth of
her first child. Before becoming a mother, she had worked consis-
tently. The father of her children comes and goes. Although he has
tried to help with child support, his financial situation has deterio-
rated over time, and he too is on welfare. Nitza takes any work she
can get, but never reports her income to the National Insurance
Institute (NII)1even though she knows she is required to do so. She
did not also notify the authorities when the father of her children
Please direct all correspondence to Shiri Regev-Messalem, Law School, Bar Ilan Uni-
versity, Ramat-Gan, Israel; e-mail:
1The National Insurance Institute of Israel is the state agency that administers all
social benefits programs in Israel.
Law & Society Review, Volume 48, Number 4 (2014)
© 2014 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
came back to live with her in the apartment she was renting because
she knew it would disentitle her to welfare benefits. After failing to
pay her rent for a few months, Nitza left the flat and squatted with
her children in a public housing apartment, from which she was
eventually forcefully evicted by the police.
In this paper, I draw on 49 in-depth interviews with Israeli
female welfare recipients, like Nitza, to investigate whether their
seemingly unrelated individual acts of noncompliance with welfare
laws are connected. I have shown that although the fraudulent
behavior of these women encompasses a political claim against
the Israeli welfare state—and constitutes acts of individual
resistance—it has an extremely weak connection to any coherent
ideological perspective or collective practices of social support. The
women’s system of social support is severely restricted due to the
Israeli welfare state’s fraud investigation tactics of home visits and
obtaining information on recipients through informants, which
shape and fragmentize the women’s collective practices. As a result,
the women are trapped in individual resistance, and the potential
of their acts to generate any social change seems quite slim.
Since the late 1950s, historical, sociological, and socio-legal
studies have been documenting fraudulent acts and cheating
engaged in by the poor during the nineteenth and twentieth centu-
ries in various contexts, including across England (Thompson 1980)
and Italy (Hobsbawm 1959), in the slums of Mumbai, India (Boo
2013), in rural Malaysia (Scott 1985, 1990), in urban U.S. cities
(DeParle 2004; Edin and Lein 1997; Ewick and Silbey 1998; Gilliom
2001; Sarat 1990; White 1990), and in the context of black slavery in
South America (Buckmaster 1959; Genovese 1976). At the same
time, rich debate has arisen over the essence of these types of acts,
specifically whether they constitute individualistic, opportunistic
acts, or a form of protest and resistance. Some scholars, in their
descriptions of fraudulent acts by the poor, portray them as oppor-
tunistic, individual acts of survival, devoid of any political dimension
(Boo 2013; DeParle 2004; Edin and Lein 1997). In line with this
perception, traditional literature on welfare fraud views this behav-
ior as an individual criminal activity (e.g., Evason and Woods 1995;
Loveland 1989; MacDonald 1994; McKeever 1999; Martin 1992;
Rowlingson et al. 1997; Sainsbury 2003; Seccombe 2011). In con-
trast, other scholars treat such acts as political in nature. Initially,
these scholars examined the possible consistency and diver-
gences between acts conducted by the poor and social movements
and collective struggles (e.g., Buckmaster 1959; Genovese 1976;
Hobsbawm 1959; Piven 1979; Scott 1985; Thompson 1980). The
study of the actions of peasants, bandits, slaves, and the urban poor
through the prism of social movement struggles was based on the
conviction that collective forms of struggles are vital for altering the
742 Trapped in Resistance
existing structures of social power. This premise is grounded on
the notion that collective action derives its power from a coherent
ideological claim and some form of organization that enables coor-
dination of economic and political resources, allows strategic use of
these resources, and ensures the continuity of lower class political
mobilization over time (Piven 1979).
Scholars differ as to the potential of these resistant practices to
initiate structural change. Although most do agree that a coherent
ideological claim and system of organization are crucial for effective
resistance, they vary as to whether these features are observable
in concrete historical instances of resistance. Scott (1985), for
example, analyzed acts of passive noncompliance, evasion, and
deception in a Malaysian village as forms of class struggle with real
potential to escalate and transform the power structure, since they
represent a conscious claim against the rich and are fairly coordi-
nated and organized. However, studying the rural “social bandit”
and the “city mob,” Hobsbawm (1959) argued that these pheno-
mena constitute a primitive and archaic form of resistance, as
they present a simplistic ideological claim—of the poor against
the rich—and a very limited form of organization. Nonetheless—
whether historically present or not—both of these scholars seem to
agree that for such acts of “protest from below” to be effective, a
coherent ideological claim and collective practices supporting coor-
dination and organization of resources are imperative.
Since the mid-1980s, a vast body of scholarly work has contin-
ued to develop the conception of resistance (Abu-Lughod 1990;
Comaroff 1985; Dean and Melrose 1996, 1997; Ewick and Silbey
1992, 1998, 2003; Jordan 1993; Gilliom 2001; Sarat 1990; White
1990; Yngvesson 1993; Ziv 2004). Similar to the earlier writings on
resistance, this later literature emphasizes the power dynamics at
play in the struggles of the poor. By highlighting their individual
struggles and subversions, it sheds new light on the poor—and,
more specifically, welfare recipients—and shatters the image of the
helpless, simple, passive, unsophisticated person who surrenders to
a hegemonic ideology. This form of individual resistance was cel-
ebrated and lauded by scholars (Gilliom 2001; Sarat 1990; White
1990; Ziv 2004) for exposing “the inherent instability of seemingly
hegemonic structures, that power is diffused throughout society,
and that there are multiple possibilities for resistance by oppressed
people” (Handler 1992: 697–698). Thus, in contrast to the earlier
protest-from-below research, a central focus of the later studies was
the power of individuals. Consequently, they abandoned the theoreti-
cal approach connecting individual acts of noncompliance with
collective struggles. As McCann and March noted, “[t]he resistances
they [the later scholars] celebrate are not directly or extensively
connected to battles over the manifestation of racism, poverty,
Regev-Messalem 743

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