A Poverty Trap in the Galilee

The future of the Israeli economy depends on having Haredim go out to work, and Israel must not bury this future in poverty traps in the Galilee and the Negev.

The government's failure to solve the problem of housing for the ultra-Orthodox has been going on for decades. Not enough Haredi cities and neighborhoods are being built. This leads to Haredim entering secular neighborhoods and cities, to bitter battles, and to an exacerbation of the already sensitive relations among various groups.

It is first and foremost the Haredi parties who are to blame for this failure; they have been members of almost every government in the last few decades, but did very little to solve the shortage.

There are two main reasons for the severe housing shortage among the ultra-Orthodox. One is the high birth rate. Today the Haredim need about 5,500 new housing units a year; in a decade from now they will need 12,000. The second reason is the severe poverty among the ultra-Orthodox and the prevalent custom that Haredi parents buy apartments for at least some of their children when they marry; Haredi parents buy an average of 3.5 apartments for their children. That is why the Haredi need for cheap housing is so desperate, and their willingness to live anywhere where there is cheap housing, including in the territories and in financially distressed cities, is so great.

Under the current government, Shas controls the Housing and Construction Ministry, and it is clear to its leaders that the party will be tested by its success in building a large number of apartments for Haredim, and cheaply. Ads in ultra-Orthodox and general-circulation newspapers indicate that the government is planning tens of thousands of housing units for Haredim - including 3,000 in Haredi neighborhoods in Tiberias and 2,000 in Safed. It was reported this week that the mayor of Upper Nazareth, Shimon Gapso, is lobbying to build a Haredi neighborhood of 8,000 homes in his city. The government appears likely to accept the plan and invest NIS 300 million in development. It is also planning to build new Haredi cities in Harish, at the entrance to Wadi Ara, and in the Negev town of Kasif.

Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with the idea that many Haredim will move to the Galilee and the Negev. But only ostensibly. The assumption that the Haredim can be sent to outlying areas is based on the idea that Haredi men need only a Talmud, that they can study Torah all day and still make do. That's why the city of Betar Ilit, south of Jerusalem, was built almost entirely without places of employment. But one of the central objectives of the Israeli economy is to send the Haredim, both men and women, out to work. Sending them to live in areas distant from centers of employment, where it's not worth building factories, would therefore be shooting the economy in the foot. It means perpetuating the Haredi absence from the job market and Haredi poverty. These plans, if implemented, will ensure that most Haredi men will continue to avoid serving in the army, getting a job and earning a living.

Any plan for a new Haredi community must first be assessed on the basis of the employment opportunities it offers. Harish, which is located near Hadera and Netanya and the train lines in those cities, is definitely suitable, as is the new Haredi neighborhood planned for Lod, which is surrounded by employment opportunities. But if Upper Nazareth wants 8,000 Haredi families, let it show that it is capable of providing employment for them. And what will the ultra-Orthodox do in Tiberias, Safed or Kasif? Fish? Mine phosphate?

Pressured ministers tend to provide unsuccessful solutions. Housing Minister Ariel Atias is under heavy pressure to provide cheap housing at any cost. But we must not allow the construction of Haredi cities that will lock their residents out of the world of employment. The future of the Israeli economy depends on having Haredim go out to work, and we must not bury this future in poverty traps in the Galilee and the Negev.

The writer is the vice president of research and information at Hiddush-For Religious Freedom and Equality.