Ultra-Orthodox Should Fight for the Right to Work

God himself labored for six days before resting on the Sabbath. Is there any reason why the ultra-Orthodox shouldn’t do the same?

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Despite the blood-curdling declarations of "civil war" from ultra-Orthodox leaders, they know that Tuesday’s High Court ruling ending state grants to yeshiva students who received their military draft notices last year was the correct one.

I think it was also historic: the first time the court has actually halted the cash transfers, hurting the yeshivas where they feel it most – in their money clips.

Haredi leaders may parrot Aryeh Deri's accusations of "persecution" but deep down they know that their community cannot continue its state of semi-isolation from wider Israeli society. The ultra-Orthodox community simply cannot afford to sink deeper into poverty and subsistence culture.

At least two-thirds of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish men aren't working at all, and it's a major economic problem. The 700,000 ultra-Orthodox among Israel's population are Israel's poorest sector. They have large families, with an average of nearly seven children per couple. Sixty percent of the community lives below the poverty line and the proportion is rising.

The golden age is over. The world economic crisis has slashed the foreign donations that used to sustain thousands of yeshiva students. The tax-paying Israeli middle classes support Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s vision of “sharing the national burden.” His point man on religious issues, Dov Lipman, talks a lot of sense.

It’s not just a question of domestic Israeli politics. Nearly one in five Israeli men between ages 35 and 54 are not part of the labor force – 60 percent higher than the average among developed nations. When Israel was accepted into the OECD, the organization urged "profound policy changes" and "efforts to encourage the Haredim to strengthen their vocational skills as part of a drive for a more self-sufficient - and less poverty-ridden - balance between religious worship and work."

Former Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer was fond of pointing out that while rates of poverty are falling among Israeli Arabs, who make up a little more than 20 percent of the population, they have actually been rising among the 10 percent who are Haredi.

Much of this poverty stems from the agreement allowing religious students exemption from military service that over half a century has mushroomed into almost an entire community living off the state. In order to claim the exemption, seminary students must remain at their studies until age 28.

"This is not sustainable," Fischer once told me. "We can't have an ever-increasing proportion of the population continuing to not go to work. So it's going to change, somehow or the other. The question is does that change happen in social conflict, in political conflict, or can it be helped to happen consensually and constructively?"

"Around 70 percent of the men don't work in the formal labor force. This is an absolute guarantee of being poor, if you don't work," Fischer said. "This is not a problem in the United States among the Haredi community - there, they work. It is a problem in Israel. The question is why."

He said a key factor was government incentives encouraging Haredi students to claim welfare.

Enter Lapid, combined with the High Court’s firm stance – first on the Tal Law that sought to extend the Haredi army exemption, and now on the budget transfer.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men are now reporting for military duty, hoping to follow the mainstream of Israeli society into higher education and a professional working life instead of a marginal existence living off handouts from the state.

There are already 3,500 Haredi soldiers in the IDF. That figure is expected to reach 10,000 by 2018.

They aren’t just entering the IDF Nahal Haredi unit – though a second company had to be formed last year to accommodate the steady influx of new recruits. Ultra-Orthodox men are also flocking to computer units, leveraging their Talmudic skills for technical know-how and giving themselves a leg up into the job market.

And it’s not just the army. In the private professions, ultra-Orthodox candidates are presenting themselves for interview at law and accountancy firms in higher numbers than ever before.

There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, non-employment in the ultra-Orthodox sector is a new phenomenon. Thirty years ago, the rate of Haredi non-employment was 21 percent, now it’s 60 percent – a threefold increase that cannot be sustained without damaging all of Israeli society.

Ultra-Orthodox protesting IDF draft.Credit: Shiran Granot

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