Incentives not to work
To put the ultra-Orthodox to work, the stipend pipeline must be cut. Any other policy would be irresponsible and endanger Israel and its economy.
Here are some encouraging statistics: The rate of ultra-Orthodox participation in the job market is on the rise and has passed 40 percent. More than 2,000 ultra-Orthodox men have joined military or civilian national service. About 5,000 ultra-Orthodox people are studying at university. These achievements are evidence of the government's effort to integrate men and women from the ultra-Orthodox community into the job market.
But unfortunately this is only the tenth of the glass that is full. The number of married yeshiva students the Education Ministry supports has grown in recent years from 65,000 to 75,000. In other words, the glass of ultra-Orthodox employment is for the most part still empty.
The hundreds of millions of shekels the state is investing in helping ultra-Orthodox people go out to work is not preventing the rapid growth of the world of yeshiva students. The main reason is that every year more than 6,000 young students join a kollel, a yeshiva for married men. The number of married yeshiva students who go out to work is not even close to the number of new students. The problem will get worse. By 2015, about 8,000 new married yeshiva students are expected. In 2020, some 12,000.
Again and again attempts are made to lull the public with the claim that the changes in the ultra-Orthodox economy are happening on their own and you can't force the situation. The truth is that the changes in the ultra-Orthodox community began with Benjamin Netanyahu's economic decrees in 2003, when he was finance minister, especially when child allowances were slashed. These changes are very slow, and the ultra-Orthodox community grows fast. Israel is swiftly following through on senior economists' grim predictions - that the Israeli economy will not be able to bear the weight of the yeshiva world.
Undoubtedly, we must continue to invest large sums in professional and academic training for the ultra-Orthodox, creating jobs and slots for ultra-Orthodox soldiers, anything that will make enlistment and work worthwhile. But that's not enough. A whole world of stipends and discounts worth thousands of shekels make leaving the kollel not worthwhile, mainly the minimum income allowance for yeshiva students that compels 22,000 people to remain outside the job market.
Incentives are not enough to put yeshiva students to work. Incentives not to work must be canceled. The minimum income allowance for married yeshiva students must be abolished, and any welfare payment must be made conditional on the exhausting of employment opportunities. The number of years the state funds yeshiva studies must be limited.
The Gabai Committee, which is developing government policy on ultra-Orthodox employment, is about to submit its conclusions. The committee is expected to set a goal of 5,000 married yeshiva students who by 2015 will enlist in military or civilian national service; they would thus be able to enter the job market. This rather ambitious goal is far from adequate because the number of people joining yeshivas will be far greater. But it's doubtful that even this goal will be achieved if the stipends for married yeshiva students are not restricted.
The Gabai Committee must not fall into the trap of peaceful change through dialogue. There are situations in which a society must make difficult decisions. Prime Minister Netanyahu knows this well. To put the ultra-Orthodox to work, the stipend pipeline must be cut. Any other policy the Gabai Committee proposes would be irresponsible and endanger Israel and its economy.
The writer is deputy director for research and information at Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality.