Future Shock: An Israel Without Scientists or Engineers

A damning new report highlights the extent to which the Haredim pose a threat to the country's economy in decades to come.

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Haredim protesting against legislative changes requiring them to serve in the army.
Haredim protesting against legislative changes requiring them to serve in the army.Credit: Moti Milrod

With the exception of a few sourpusses like George Orwell, we usually envision the future as a time of technological and material progress. Sometimes even intellectual or spiritual advancement too. We'll all have a Google Glass perched on our nose, travel in clean and quiet electric cars, live longer and healthier lives, and have robots to do the grunt work.

Even in our skeptical age, with its concerns about the weapons of mass destruction, alienation and global warming that technology has wrought, most people still believe that geeks, engineers and scientists will change the world – and for the better. Even Orwell didn't imagine his dystopian future to be a step back to the century before. In 1984, Big Brother and his minions make good use of technology, albeit employed chiefly for repression and war.

But that, of course, assumes there are enough geeks, engineers and scientists to conceive, design and construct all this wonderful technology.

What will Israel look like in half a century? The knee-jerk response is to imagine we'll be Startup Nation on steroids. We'll just keep turning out innovative new technology using the same yiddishe kop, entrepreneurial drive and creative problem-solving as we have over the past 20 years.

But, unless we can change it, the reality is that the Israel of 2064 won't look like the high-tech centers of Kiryat Atidim or Herzliya Pituah, with their startup companies and young entrepreneurs. It will look more like Geula, with its yeshivot and kollels. De rigueur dress won't be a wearable computer but a shtreimel and black stockings.

The rapid growth of Israel's Haredi population has been well-documented for years. But in its State of the Nation report issued last week, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel illustrates the extent of the problem in stark terms, with page after page of graphs and terse commentary. Worryingly, it shows that the progress supposedly being made to integrate Israel's ultra-Orthodox into the labor market is not going nearly as well as we may have assumed.

Gemara doesn't teach driving

Let's start with the situation as it is now, which is bad enough. The rest of Israel is working more, with the percentage of the adult population either holding a job or actively seeking one rising from 58% in1999 to nearly 64% in 2012, the Taub Center report shows (it has, in fact risen even further since then, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics).

Among Haredi men, the so-called labor force participation rate is not only much lower for the general population, it is especially low for people in the prime work years, and has declined since 1999.

Among Haredi men age 35-54 – the prime working ages – the percentage not working at all has grown more than threefold since 1979, to more than 52% in 2011. Among those working, huge numbers are working in education (21.5%, a 50% increase from 1979) and far fewer in other sectors of the economy – just 26.2% in 2011, compared with 70.3% in 1979.

For Haredi males age 25 to 34, the labor force participation rate now is not much higher than for Haredi men age 65 to 74, i.e., pensioners.

Teaching is productive work, too. Indeed, at its best, it is an investment in the country's future. But, of course, these Haredi men are not equipping their young students with skills in the math, science or English they will need to become economically productive members of society in the future.

Whatever value there might be to the Gemara study they specialize in, it does not make you a better engineer, bus driver or accountant.

Fewer Haredi men than ever are getting anything approaching a secular education. Among men ages 35 to 54, the percentage with a primary education or less rose to 47% in 2012, from 31.3% 10 years earlier.

Those with a secondary education who've completed the bagrut (matriculation exam) fell to 16.2%, from 25.6% a decade before, and those with a degree from an institution of higher education dropped to 16%, from 24%.

Instead, more and more of them are getting their education at a yeshiva gedolah or kollel: Among the oldest men, just 56% studied at one, with the rate rising among younger and younger men, reaching 90.2% among the youngest cohort of 25-34.

Less are getting economically appropriate education

The popular notion that, under economic pressure, the grip of the yeshiva-centered world is gradually loosening is not borne out by the numbers. The Haredi population is growing so quickly that more of them are filling up college lecture halls, but even more are filling up the batei midrash.

The failure to get an economically appropriate education is only one facet of the problem. Poverty also serves to isolate and hold back the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into mainstream Israel.

The rate of poverty is high enough in Israel as it is, but among Haredi households it is much higher still and has grown sharply in the two decades to 2011 from 44% to 57%, even after taking into account government help.

Haredi families are forgoing basic needs such as telephone or electricity, medical care and even food, which hardly lays the groundwork for a promising future for their young, according to a CBS survey.

The problems of the Haredim are no longer just their own. They are not a small, isolated community we can let freely pursue their own lifestyle, as David Ben-Gurion related to them when he exempted their young men from the draft 60 years ago. Today they account for maybe 10% of Israel's total population, but if school enrolments are any guide to the future, they will be close to twice that in another generation.

The Taub Center notes that among elementary school-age children, those in Haredi schools account for 18.6% of the total. That is up five percentage points in just 13 years.

"A large share of these children are not even studying basic subjects," the Taub report notes, referring not just to the ultra-Orthodox young but to Israeli Arabs, who are also (albeit for every different reasons) receiving an inferior education that similarly puts the economy at risk. "Children receiving an education below developing world levels will have major problems contending with the needs of a First World economy," the report warns.

This is not meant to be an anti-Haredi screed – a warning that we are doomed to be overrun by people who don’t share our values and lifestyle. But it is a very clear warning that Israel can't exist if too few of us are producing the skilled labor required for a thriving and advanced economy.

It poses not only a risk to Startup Nation, but also to the ability of the country to produce goods and services at the level of a developed economy, and even risks our national security.

Haredim studying high-tech at the company Ravtech in December 2013. Credit: Eyal Toueg