Lapid Is Right, Israel’s Coddling of the ultra-Orthodox Community Will Lead to Disaster

Kahol Lavan co-leader was accused of anti-Semitism when he portrayed Haredi leaders as extorting money, but figures on education show an even more worrying trend

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Arye Dery and Yair Lapid at the Knesset, May 14, 2015.
Arye Dery and Yair Lapid at the Knesset, May 14, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

The Kahol Lavan party’s Yair Lapid was accused of anti-Semitism this week for releasing an election ad depicting the ultra-Orthodox as squeezing money from the state. The ad, which features phony WhatsApp messages among ultra-Orthodox party heads, right-wing leaders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, portrays the party chiefs as blackmailers.

The current interior minister, Arye Dery, demands 1 trillion shekels ($287 billion), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman wants all the state’s funds, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich demands the annexation of the West Bank, and right-wing leader Ayelet Shaked calls for the High Court of Justice to be reined in. Faced by these requests, Netanyahu is depicted as exploitable – someone who will surrender to all these demands.

It’s not entirely clear why so much anger has been aimed at Lapid for mentioning the financial demands of the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, but it’s clear that Lapid seems to know what he’s doing. No Kahol Lavan leader has renounced the video yet, and it can’t be ignored that the ultra-Orthodox are a focal point of the current election campaign.

>> Read more: Netanyahu was quick to denounce rival's 'anti-Semitism.' Here are 5 times he stayed silent | Analysis

The controversy over legislation to draft young Haredi men into the army is what catapulted Israel into another general election, and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s blatant attacks on the ultra-Orthodox have turned him into a leading politician in the current campaign – and possibly a deciding factor in crowning the next prime minister.

Even pollster Camil Fuchs predicted Tuesday a stampede of voters leaving Kahol Lavan for Lieberman – apparently because of his anti-Haredi remarks. Thus Lapid’s escalation of attacks on the ultra-Orthodox appears to be a calculated political move.

Lapid, of course, intentionally exaggerated in the video (the yeshiva budgets are 1.2 billion shekels a year, nowhere near 1 trillion), but economically, Lapid’s focus on the ultra-Orthodox has its justifications. This week, the Central Bureau of Statistics put out a quarterly report on its employment targets for various population groups.

Ultra-Orthodox students at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, March 2008.Credit: Dan Keinan

The employment trends are very positive for most of these segments. Arab male employment at the end of 2018 was 76.3%, near the 78% target set for 2020. For Arab women this number was 38.2%, near the 41% target. The overall employment rate of 78.3% has surpassed the goal of 76.5% set for 2020, and the most impressive success is by Haredi women. They are employed at a rate of 76.1%, far beyond the 63% target.

A continuation of failure

Of all these achievements, there stands one scathing failure – the employment rate for ultra-Orthodox men. At the end of 2018, this number was 50.2%, a far cry from the 63% target. By the end of the second quarter this year, the rate was even lower, at 48.3%, but the assessment is that the overall trend for 2019 is between 50% and 50.5%.

In this sense, 2019 looks like a continuation of the failure to integrate Haredi men into the workforce. The figures improved between 2015 and 2017, when the percentage hit between 51% and 52%, but this trend changed in 2018. Ultra-Orthodox men are the only population segment in Israel whose employment rate has dipped rather than risen.

There are two explanations for the lower rate of Haredi male employment. One is that these men remain in yeshivas and don’t get drafted into the army.

The current law exempts the ultra-Orthodox from military service by age 24 if they’re studying at a yeshiva, and only by this too-late age are they released to try to integrate into the workforce. At this stage, they’re already married with children and have no relevant education. They have had no training in core subjects since the age of 10  a problem no longer solvable  and incentives to integrate them into the workforce won’t help.

The conscription law, in other words, is a key obstacle to the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the labor market, and it’s not surprising that this law has been the catalyst for the two general elections called for this year.

The second explanation is linked to the economic incentives that let the ultra-Orthodox continue living off of yeshiva stipends without having to work. When Lapid was finance minister from 2013 to 2015, he cut yeshiva budgets. This cut, along with a one-time exemption from the draft that the ultra-Orthodox received, were apparently the main reason for the jump in ultra-Orthodox employment to above 51% from 2015 to 2017.

But then Lapid was fired by Netanyahu, whose coalition deal with Haredi parties after the 2015 election raised budgets for yeshivas. This gave the ultra-Orthodox the financial support that let them remain outside the workforce once again. This ultra-Orthodox budget extortion, and Netanyahu’s pliability, paved the way for a downturn in the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the job market.

The data, then, supports the fact that the financial demands by the ultra-Orthodox, alongside the controversy over conscription legislation, are immediate causes for a decline in ultra-Orthodox male employment. Maybe Lapid is employing borderline anti-Semitic language, but the trends he’s pointing to are accurate and problematic.

Errant education budget

At the same time, yeshiva budgets make up an inconsequential amount of what is paid out to the ultra-Orthodox. The overall Haredi education budget is the largest and most destructive of all, as it funds Haredi ignorance, which is what ultimately keeps ultra-Orthodox men from joining the workforce. Most Haredi youths don’t study core subjects. Many stop studying math after sixth grade, and they barely learn any English. They study in yeshiva through age 24 but only gain knowledge in religious studies and lack the knowledge they need to integrate into a modern job market.

A talented few manage to overcome this and get the academic training they need to join the workforce, but they account for just a small minority of ultra-Orthodox men. Data presented by Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research shows that the number of Haredi men completing academic degrees hasn’t changed in 15 years, and the percentage of ultra-Orthodox in Israel with an academic degree is half that in the United States, where core subjects are mandatory, even at Haredi schools.

The destructive habit of state financing for an education system that doesn’t include a core curriculum is a phenomenon of Israel alone – no other advanced country has such a policy. Consequently, the 7% of Israeli adults who are Haredi prevent the 19% of Israeli children who are Haredi from getting the education they need to work and lift themselves out of poverty. As Ben-David puts it, these children’s great-grandchildren will be 49% of the Israeli population in 2065, and by then it will be too late to pass laws to change these distortions.

In simpler words, instead of accusing Lapid of anti-Semitism, and instead of Kahol Lavan retracting its ad, let’s focus on the current election campaign, the ultra-Orthodox and their destructive political trends. And no, Lieberman isn’t right. The problem isn’t the law on the draft, it’s mainly the absence of core curricula. If we don’t resolve this, there won’t be many election campaigns left to try to rescue Israel from devastation.

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