Ultra-Orthodox Employees Have to Be Crazy to Hold Down a Job in Israel

Government policies have made it much too easy and much too lucrative to maintain their ‘society of scholars’

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Ultra-Orthodox men working in computer coding, Bnei Brak, December 9, 2016.
Ultra-Orthodox men working in computer coding, Bnei Brak, December 9, 2016.Credit: \ Eyal Toueg
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

The 54 mandates of the center-left and the eight of Yisrael Beiteinu shows that the second round of elections in Israel have produced an anti-Bibi majority. But it wasn’t the only “anti” outcome of the voting.

Avigdor Lieberman’s party increased its Knesset strength to eight seats by virtue of his anti-Haredi campaign, which attracted voters who don’t belong to his base of Russian immigrants. Part of Kahol Lavan’s 33 seats were won because of the party’s call during the campaign for a “secular unity government.”

But even if Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t destined to remain in power for much longer, the Haredi parties are another story: They are here to stay. They’re 12% of the population and forecasts see their numbers growing to 32% by the year 2065. Already a fifth of all Israeli students are ultra-Orthodox.

>> Read more: Ultra-Orthodox parties and Netanyahu: An unholy deal that just came apart

The bottom line is that whatever the (for now) secular majority wants or doesn’t want, anti-Haredism alone can’t change things.

We can continue to call the Haredim parasites, but that isn’t a policy, The ‘society of scholars’ is an integral part of Haredi culture and the non-Haredi population will have to learn to respect that.

But the ultra-Orthodox also need to learn to change because the current states of affair isn’t sustainable.

We have found out that the only way to do this is via economic incentives, The Haredim respond to them, even in areas that they regard as the most sensitive, like large families and teaching the core curriculum in their schools.

Fifteen years ago, Hebrew University Prof. Joram Mayshar published research on fertility rates for different population groups. His most prominent finding was the steep rise in the rate among Haredi women: In the 1940s they had on average three children but in the 1980s the number had risen to six. Today the average is seven.

Mayshar wasn’t able to prove it, but he believed, as have other since then, that the increase in ultra-Orthodox fertility rates was a response to incentives the government awarded them in the 1970s, mainly the child allowances that enabled families with large numbers of children to be economically viable.

Since then there have been changes in the allowances but they remain higher for the second, third and fourth child than for the first. It’s an absurd policy for a country whose fertility rate is the highest among the world’s developed countries – an average of 3.1 children per woman versus an average 1.7 for countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Israeli social welfare policies are based on the number of people in a household. The more people there are, the more state support they get. Housing benefits, rent subsidies and discounts on municipal rates are all based on family size. Discounts for daycare are based on family income per person and those with multiple children in daycare get even bigger discounts.

Thus Haredi families pay 600-700 shekels ($170-200) a month for toddler daycare, a fraction of the 2,000 shekel ordinary rate. For pre-school programs they pay 800-900 versus 2,600.

Government researchers have calculated that the average ultra-Orthodox household saves more than 3,000 shekels monthly on expenses due to various benefits they are entitled to. That’s more than any other segment of the population gets. Even among Israeli Arabs, whose poverty rate is nearly as high as that of the ultra-Orthodox, benefits on average come to only 2,000 a month at most.

Because the system ignores parental earning capacity, the society of scholars manages economically with only half of ultra-Orthodox men holding a job, compared with 87% of non-Haredi Jewish males in Israel.

The gradual process of more ultra-Orthodox men joining the workforce ground to a half after the 2009 elections, when Netanyahu reached a coalition agreement with the Haredi parties that effectively eliminated all economic incentives to work and restored the yeshivas’ budgets.

A study by the Finance Ministry found that Israeli Arab males work 30% less than non-Haredi Jewish males, but earn 57% less than they do. Haredi men works 70% less than non-Haredi males but, thanks to state aid, earn only 25% less. They would be crazy to go out and work under the circumstances.

It doesn’t have to be this way. All that needs to be done is to change the way government allowances are awarded. Instead of basing it on family income per person, it should be based on earning capacity. That’s how social welfare systems work in most of the developed world and Haredim there have learned to live with it.

In the United States, for instance, the rate of Haredim with college degrees is twice that of their Israeli counterparts. The men work, and study in their spare time. They have to learn a core curriculum and they can’t choose not to work.

Is Israel, a brief period when the same principles were employed showed how easy it is when the economic incentives are there to coax Haredi men into the workforce. They were reversed a year later, but in 2019 we have another chance to put them back in place.

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