The Shekel Drops / Should We Let Haredi Families Live in Tents?

Or: To what degree should the state help people who won't help themselves?

In the Land of Israel, buying a home is very expensive. It's so expensive that last summer, it triggered a grass-roots protest of a magnitude never seen here before. The Israeli middle class took to the streets to protest how hard it is to maintain a decent standard of living, especially when it comes to housing.

But the middle class was out there in the streets all by its lonesome. The lower class did not show up. Neither did Arabs or Haredim.

protest Ariel Atias - Emil Salman - 08022012
Emil Salman

Why didn't the latter take to the streets as well? There are several explanations, including their exclusion from Israeli society. But the main reason is apparently that housing problems are less acute among Arabs and Haredim.

According to National Insurance Institute data, 67% of nonobservant Israelis own a home. The figure among ultra-Orthodox and Arabs is 70%.

Israeli Arabs tend to live in separate villages far from the center, and usually build large complexes for the whole extended family. The Haredim on the other hand live in big cities, including in the center, where housing prices are the highest. They do not build houses like the Arabs, though their community is also characterized by large families, who therefore need significant living space. Yet the Haredim manage to buy homes. How?

That's a good question with no clear answer, but apparently they've been getting by thanks to three factors. One is help from older generations who worked, and some of whom received Holocaust compensation payments from Germany. Another is massive low-cost building in the territories, which enabled the establishment of cheap Haredi cities such as Beitar Ilit.

The third source of funding is biased assistance from the state. The criteria for assistance in purchasing a home are blatantly skewed in favor of the ultra-Orthodox.

The first two sources are disappearing. The generation that worked, and received payments from Germany, is dying off. Cheap building in the territories is drying up for political reasons. What remains is state subsidies to the Haredim, which have been undergoing profound change, as can be seen in the heated arguments about the new criteria set by Housing Minister Ariel Atias of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

The fact is that the housing shortage is worsening among ultra-Orthodox families as well, which explains why Atias was adamant in refusing to make working a criteria for eligibility. That fact is also probably the reason why more and more Haredim are joining the workforce.

So the Haredi housing shortage has an upside: It motivates members of this community to work. But it also creates onerous problems, and begs hard questions about where lines are drawn between the Haredim and the welfare state. For instance, what should be done with Haredim who don't work and can't find proper housing? Should Haredi families with multiple children be relegated to living in tents (or underground parking lots - some Haredi families really do live that way ) because the parents refuse to work?

Put otherwise: To what degree should the welfare state help people who won't help themselves? That is a difficult but important question. It's one faced around the world, and one of the better solutions is getting people off welfare and into the workforce - the so-called "Wisconsin plan."

These are plans to help people who don't know how to help themselves, by nurturing their good qualities while threatening to take away most of their social benefits if they don't cooperate.

Welfare nations don't let people trying to help themselves starve in the streets, but they make sure that living on welfare isn't posh enough for them to want not to work.

All nations contend with these issues but, in Israel the problem is more acute because it has an entire, fast-growing community - the Haredim - that insists on not working. Worse, only in Israel are they exempted from working, by virtue of the Tal Law. This means they can't be included in Wisconsin-type programs to get them off welfare.

This catch-22 requires that Israel be stricter than anybody else about insisting that help be contingent on people helping themselves. If they refuse, they should get no more than the minimal, bare subsistence aid. And that doesn't include housing subsidies at taxpayers' expense.