Though the ultra-Orthodox clash with the Supreme Court erupted over the Immanuel school segregation case, the court's really important ruling last week was its abolishment, as of the end of 2010, of welfare payments for married yeshiva students. As Haaretz reported back in 1998, these income maintenance payments constitute a key component of the benefits this community receives.
It is doubtful that there has ever been a worse investment in the Israeli economy than the NIS 135 million budgeted for this purpose. Not only did this money help 11,000 men study in yeshiva instead of going to work, but it also created a situation in which it was not worth it for either them or their wives to work, because that would entail the loss of the allowance. In other words, more than this money has boosted incomes, it has served to perpetuate poverty and sabotage Israel's gross national product.
Contrary to the bombast of Haredi propagandists, their "society of scholars" is not a historic Jewish tradition. All through history, Jewish society has been one in which a majority that worked and earned a living funded a minority of Torah scholars. Today's ultra-Orthodox society of scholars, which numbers 100,000 yeshiva students, could have evolved only in a modern welfare state that provides benefit payments. The more the Haredi community has grown, however, the more impossible it has become for taxpayers to bear the burden of supporting them.
The petition for abolishing the guaranteed income allowances - submitted in 2000 by the leader of Jerusalem's secular community, the late Ornan Yekutieli - made a clear statement: We can no longer fund the Haredim who shirk working for a living. The Supreme Court's decision to hand down its judgment only 10 years later, at the height of a public debate over the grave damage that the society of scholars is causing the Israeli economy, also sent a clear message to the Haredi leadership: This far and no further.
Members of the Haredi community like to boast of the social change it has undergone in recent years: Thousands, they say, are learning trades and going to work. Therefore, Haredi spokesmen argue, there is no need for pressure; it would even be counterproductive. But the truth is that all this is far from enough. According to even the most optimistic statistics, only 45 percent of Haredi men work, and most researchers put the figure at less than 40 percent. Furthermore, any such change is the result of the cuts in child allowances and yeshiva subsidies made by then-finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2003.
An insufficiently well-known fact is that two years after Netanyahu's cuts, the poverty rate in the Haredi community began to go down: When people go to work, whether they want to or are forced to, they become less poor. The abolitiont of guaranteed income allowances for Haredim at the end of this year can thus be expected to cause a rapid rise in the number of workers, and in its wake, a dramatic decrease in the community's poverty level - on condition, of course, that Netanyahu does not cave in and hock the economy's future in exchange for short-term coalition quiet.
But the money that is saved should not be taken from the Haredim. Instead, it should be invested in vocational training for yeshiva students, in job creation, in small-business loans, and in salaries for more Haredi soldiers, including in the career army. It should be invested in a Haredi national service program in emergency services like the fire department, the Magen David Adom ambulance service and the police. It should be invested in rescuing Haredi society from poverty and creating a situation in which many fewer Haredim will need guaranteed income allowances. It is doubtful that there could be a better investment than this for the Israeli economy.
The writer is vice president of research and information for Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality.
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