Ultra-Orthodox Jobs Debate Pits Yesh Atid Against Shas, UTJ

Dery says vocational training, not pressure, will encourage the ultra-Orthodox to enter the job market.

Olivier Fitoussi

As the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracks over efforts made by previous government to encourage ultra-Orthodox males to enter the workforce, the Knesset weighed in on the issue on Wednesday in a stormy debate.

Economy Minister Arye Dery, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told the Knesset that it is vocational training and not efforts to pressure the ultra-Orthodox that encourage them to enter the workplace. “The prior government took a number of decisions two years ago and the goal was to reduce aid and assistance to the ultra-Orthodox sector as much as possible,” Dery said in connection with the new government’s decision to eliminate employment by both parents as a criterion for preference for subsidized day care for their children.

The issue is particularly sensitive in the ultra-Orthodox community, where families are generally very large and sizeable numbers of working-age men choose to engage in religious studies rather than work. In the last government, in which neither Shas nor the other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, were members, it was Yesh Atid that pushed for policies that would encourage ultra-Orthodox males to be drafted and to enter the workforce – or to force them to do so, depending upon one’s point of view. Wednesday’s Knesset debate pitted ultra-Orthodox legislators against the Yesh Atid faction.

Directing his comments at the Yesh Atid faction, which is now in opposition, Dery said: “In the last government, there was discrimination against the ultra-Orthodox sector. What interested you was hurting the ultra-Orthodox. They didn’t do it to the Arab sector. There is not a single ultra-Orthodox person in recent years who entered the workforce because of the 150 shekel ($39) penalty they would suffer in a loss of a subsidy. They went out to work due to vocational training, placement in places of employment and other measures. Anyone who thinks that you can force people to work is making a total mistake.” Dery committed to do everything he can to provide training courses that give the proper tools to those who wish to work.

For his part, ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Knesset member Moshe Gafni accused former deputy finance minister Mickey Levy of Yesh Atid and his colleagues of being “cruel and evil” and said that the proposed change to standards to qualify for subsidized day care would harm working women. “Hurting working women is an anti-Semitic decision by the prior government. It’s only allowed against us [the ultra-Orthodox]. We’ll see if they harm an Arab working woman.”

For his part, Levy shot back: “You’re lying. We are encouraging [people] to go out to work,” but United Torah Judaism Knesset member Uri Maklev called Yesh Atid “a party of hate.” Levy insisted that his party was not hostile to the ultra-Orthodox. “We wanted to connect the ultra-Orthodox to Israeli society through serving in the army and integrating them in the labor force and extracting them from poverty, but you are exploiting every possible maneuver.”

Sharon Gal, a new Yisrael Beiteinu MK, claimed that the prior government’s requiring parents to work to get a preference for subsidized day care produced “a real, just and healthy revolution that did good for people.” He accused the ultra-Orthodox legislators of perpetuating poverty in their own community.

Yesh Atid MK Yael German called for dialogue with the ultra-Orthodox and Dery agreed with the idea.