Why Haredi Willingness to Contract COVID Could Bankrupt Israel

The coronavirus is the latest example of a long-term act of self-destruction

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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The coronavirus lockdown in Bnei Brak, September 2020.
The coronavirus lockdown in Bnei Brak, September 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

A presentation to the cabinet last Wednesday, during which ministers approved tightening the lockdown, included a breakdown of the coronavirus cases by different populations. They showed that as of September 21, a day after Rosh Hashanah, the rate of positive coronavirus tests among Haredim had reached 26.3%, compared with 13.6% In Israeli Arab communities and 9.7% for the general population.

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At least 260 Ger Hasidim were infected with the virus after group worship of around 2,000 members of the community during Rosh Hashanah.

That number is expected to rise sharply because most of the Hasidim ignored an agreement to isolate themselves in capsules before and after the holiday.

Relating to the early indications that Rosh Hashana prayers in the ultra-Orthodox community was casing a coronavirus surge, Interior Minister Arye Dery announced that he would pray outdoors during Yom Kippur. But at the same time he said that Shas, the Sephardi Haredi party that he leads, was considering leaving the government over restrictions being imposed on Yom Kippur prayers.

Ultra-Orthodox men attend a synagogue during the coronavirus lockdown, Jerusalem, September 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

All attempts to close synagogues for Yom Kippur, because of the huge contagion danger they present, were rejected by Haredi politicians and the Haredi public. Yom Kippur services draw 2 million Israelis and mix all age groups from the young to the most vulnerable elderly. Until now the mortality rate in the Haredi community was relatively low because the coronavirus has been contracted mainly by young yeshiva students. Yom Kippur threatens to bring many deaths in its wake.

As they have presented it, the Haredi fight for their right to engage in mass-infection events is linked constitutionally to the secular struggle to continue staging street protests. The comparison is unfounded. The anti-Netanyahu protests take place outside and number no more than 30,000 people, versus 2 million people at Yom Kippur services.

That said, there are other voices in the Haredi community. Admittedly it took them a long time, but there are rabbis who now realize that by flouting social-distancing rules they are sending their followers to sickness and death and urged their followers pray outdoors and in small minyans (quorums). Even so, synagogues remained mostly open and all attempts to close them failed.

Haredi stubbornness on this issue marks a deadly low point on a path of self-destruction that has been underway for many years. The path is being traveled by the Haredim, who insist on pursuing an unsustainable lifestyle, and Israeli society as a whole, which has allowed them to do so.

For decades the ultra-Orthodox political parties have held the balance of political power, and they’ve used it to their unique lifestyle and values. That means no core curriculum of basic math, science and English skills, no army service and (for adult men) religious studies instead of working.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish students in a yeshiva using protective plastic shields set up amid the coronavirus pandemic, Bnei Brak, Israel, August 27, 2020Credit: AFP

They are three rights they have obtained for themselves through the mechanism of parliamentary democracy. But they are destructive rights that are leading all of Israel to an unavoidable crisis. If nothing is done to roll them back, Israel will be on the same path as Lebanon – a good country that knowingly chose the wrong path.

Every Israeli government has been a partner in this act of self-destruction. David Ben-Gurion began the policy of exempting yeshiva students from the raft. Menachem Begin was the first to bring them into a coalition, and lifted the ceiling on the number of exemptions.

The self-destruction continued under Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1992 guaranteed, into the Basic Law governing the budget, full funding for the independent Haredi school system, without insisting on a core curriculum in return. Yuli Tamir, who was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s education minister, codified in law the exemption from the core curriculum for yeshivot k’tanot (high schools). The 2002 Tal Law not only failed to solve the problem of the draft exemption but encouraged young Haredi men to shun the labor market.

The self-destruction has accelerated over the past decade. In 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tied his political future to the Haredi parties. A former adviser, Israel Bachar, recalled recently how Netanyahu was undecided about whether to restore the government allowances to yeshiva students that he himself had cut when he was finance minister in 2003. The prime minister knew they harmed the economy, but restore them he did.

In the 11 years since then, Netanyahu has surrendered to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox over and over. Today, he is so dependent on the Haredim for his political survival that even when it comes to literal life-and-death decisions, as government coronavirus policy truly is, he can’t go against them.

Haredim today constitute 12% of Israel’s population, but because of their high birth rate – an average of seven children per woman – they will be one-third of the population by 2060, according to Central Bureau of Statistics forecasts. In other words, the campaign of self-destruction won’t be confined to the Haredi world but will envelop the entire state.

If the Haredim don’t change by 2060 Israel won’t be able to survive – at least not as a modern state with an advanced economy. Today only 50%-52% of ultra-Orthodox men work and those that do mainly work in low-skilled, low-wage jobs and have the lowest levels of labor productivity.

The idea that an economy can function properly with that kind of labor force in illusory. Israel is destined to become a Third World country.

Two years ago, Amir Yaron, the governor of the Bank of Israel, quantified the challenge. If Israel continues along the same path it is on now, per capita gross domestic product will decline 60% by 2065. The critical variable is human capital, to ensure Israel has an educated population capable of high-productivity labor. The main obstacle to achieving that is the growing Haredi minority.

The National Economic Council and the treasury’s chief economist have published similar forecasts. All of them warn that the goal of becoming one of the world’s 15 best countries doesn’t square with the socioeconomic trends in Israel.

The report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last week forecast that by 2060 Israel will be facing bankruptcy because of rising national debt. It pointed to three threats – lagging infrastructure development, regulations that discourage business and most of all the problem of human capital and that problem is first and foremost about the Haredim.

The problem has been well understood for years but the politicians have failed to stop the self-destruction, and we see it today under bright lights: The Haredim are ready to commit suicide from the coronavirus and the politicians are ready to let them do it.

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