After more than two years of political paralysis and many more years of ill will and downright nastiness under Benjamin Netanyahu, the Bennett-Lapid government has been a welcome relief. After just a month in office, it’s too soon to point to any achievements, but the atmosphere has changed for the better.
That is no mean feat given the bad behavior of the Bibi-led opposition, which is still calling the government illegitimate and engaging in the kind of name-calling that is rude even by Israeli standards. A lot of the opposition’s nastiness is being directed at Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman over his plan to condition daycare subsidies on both parents working in paid employment at least 24 hours a week.
Among other invectives. Lieberman has been accused of “disgust and hatred towards students and families with children’’ (United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman), waging “war” against working mothers (Shas Chairman Arye Deri), “starving the children of Israel” (fliers distributed by Shas) and of being the “minister of the malice and destruction” (UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman). Under pressure, the treasury is delaying implementation of the change by two months.
None of this is surprising since it is coming from ultra-Orthodox politicians. When they accuse Lieberman of being the enemy of mothers and children, families and students, they don’t mean all mothers and children, families and students, they mean Haredi ones, because they are the only ones who will be affected by it.
As structured now, the daycare subsidies enable Haredi fathers to spend their days studying in a beit midrash at the taxpayers’ expense rather than finding gainful employment. Without the subsidies, Haredi mothers, most of whom do have jobs, will have to work longer hours. Or even worse, the men may have to find even a part-time job. The entire edifice of ultra-Orthodox society could come crashing down.
Not hatred, but necessity
That Haredi leaders are resisting any attempt by the government to undo this “society of learners” is to be expected. What is less expected is that they have gotten support from such an unlikely place as Health Minister and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, who thinks Lieberman is making Haredi children needlessly suffer for their parents’ sins. Gideon Levy has accused the finance minister of acting out of “hatred, revenge and populism” rather than trying to coax Haredim into the job market.
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Lieberman is certainly no friend of the ultra-Orthodox, but the fact is that economics and demographics not only justify the step but make it more urgent than ever.
Under Netanyahu, Israel squandered 12 irreplaceable years when the slow, painstaking but vital process of turning the ultra-Orthodox into economically productive members of society should have gotten underway. It didn’t happen, and so the Bennett government will have to act quickly.
Israel is sitting on a socioeconomic bomb with two fuses burning away. The pace they are burning can be measured in years, but that’s almost no time at all when you consider how long it takes for big socioeconomic processes to happen.
The first fuse is Haredi education and employment. The percentage of working age ultra-Orthodox men in the workforce is very low – about 53 percent to 88 percent for other male Jews in Israel. The rate was even lower 20 years ago, but Netanyahu (when he was finance minister and took economic policy seriously) cut allowances to the poor (Haredim and others), driving at least some of these men into the labor market.
The upward trend for the men, such as it was, stalled after 2015 when Bibi (now prime minister and no longer interested in the economy) rolled back some of the reforms under pressure from his Haredi coalition partners.
But the employment rate for Haredi women has not only continued to grow, it’s been growing at a much faster rate. Today, 77 percent of them work, , pretty close to the 84 percent rate for non-Haredi Jewish women.
There are several reasons for that gender gap. One is that girls need some math and other skills, and are taught it, so they can find jobs later; boys aren’t supposed to waste their time on those things because they are being brought up to spend their adult years in religious study. But, if they do need to get a job, they don’t have much to offer employers.
The other reason for the gap is ideological: If a family’s finances are pressured, it’s the wife who is expected to go out and work. This presents a daunting challenge to the government trying to raise male employment.
But why should the government care if a Haredi family decides it wants to live in poverty on one income? Because the economy can’t afford to have so many people not working and not paying taxes and expecting the state to subsidize the family. And, that brings us to the second fuse, the demographic one.
The ultra-Orthodox population is growing quickly. Today, it accounts for close to 13 percent of Israel’s population; by 2045, it will reach 22% and by 2065 close to a third, according to government forecasts.
Just imagine a country where a third of the population is poor and uneducated, many of them jobless or working at low-skill, low-paid jobs. It certainly won’t be Startup Nation. In fact, it won’t be a country that can supply enough doctors to treat its sick or soldiers to defend its borders.
Even if Lieberman does succeed in cutting daycare subsidies and taking the other measures regarding the army service and forcing Haredi schools to teach a core curriculum of secular studies, Israel will keep moving inexorably closer to the day of the explosion.
That is because it will be another 10 years before the first cohort of job-ready Haredim begins entering the labor market. It will be two or more decades before their numbers begin having a real effect on the composition of the Haredi labor force. In the meantime, the Haredim who do work will be providing the economy with little added value.
The government doesn’t have the luxury of experimenting with a policy of carrots in the hope that positive incentives will entice the Haredim to change and avoid a political showdown, or worse unrest. The experience of the last 20 years shows that sticks, like subsidy cuts and enforcement of the three Rs in ultra-Orthodox schools, are more effective. Sticks aren’t nice, but niceness is only an option for policymakers who have the time.