In 2011, a suit filed in the High Court of Justice asserted that the rights of young ultra-Orthodox Jews were being violated because the law exempted their high school-age students from studying a core curriculum of secular studies.
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The argument was that by failing to provide them with a firm grounding in math, science, English and other basic subjects, young ultra-Orthodox men didn’t have the tools to work for a living and help support their families.
As it turned out, an expanded panel of justices declined to address the claim and dismissed the suit on technical grounds. But two of the justices disagreed and in a minority opinion asserted that education was a basic right.
“It seems clear that education should be understood as a basic right as enshrined in the value of human dignity in Israel. To ensure the dignity of a person who wants to participate in society, he has to be able to realize his potential, to realize his personal autonomy,” wrote Justice Edna Arbel in the minority opinion.
“The right to autonomy is undermined by the law because it deprives a child of the basic knowledge needed later in life to see all the options in front of him and choose how to live his life.”
The High Court avoided a decision about the law exempting ultra-Orthodox schools from a core curriculum, but Israel has had no choice but to grapple with the problem. The data on education and jobs show what the 2011 lawsuit claimed, namely that people deprived of an education don’t have the ability to work and earn, even if they want to.
But in 1979, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin reached a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties to expand the exemption entitling people for whom “Torah is their profession” to all ultra-Orthodox – Haredi – males.
Since then, all Haredi boys have been allowed to study at yeshivas without taking time off to serve in the army or enter the labor force. This has created a unique “society of learners” where adult males are engaged in full-time study most of their lives and rely on whatever earnings their wives can generate while raising a family.
When the exemption was expanded, 84% of ultra-Orthodox men were in the workforce, about the same as for Israeli Jews with at least a college education.
But research by Eitan Regev at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies shows that since 1979 the labor force participation rate – the percentage of working-age adults holding a job or actively looking for one – fell below 40% before rebounding over the past few years. Last year the rate exceeded 50% for the first time in more than a decade, although it is still far below the pre-1979 level.
But the Taub research points to a firm ceiling on how high the labor-force participation rate for Haredi men can keep growing.
“We’ve created a lost generation. The economic condition of Haredi society, with a second generation of the society of learners, in other words a second generation of families without a breadwinner, is deteriorating,” Regev told TheMarker.
“The financial pressure is having its effect and Haredim want to enter the labor market. But when 60% of them are under age 20 and 90% of them haven’t had a high school education, their ability to find work is very limited. Even if they want to work, they don’t succeed, or they find jobs whose salaries won’t support a family.”
The Israeli job market is geared toward people with a college degree or more, or at the very least people who have earned a high school matriculation (bagrut) certificate. Those without one have few jobs available, and the ones available pay poorly and offer little security.
The employment rate for ultra-Orthodox men is now only slightly higher than for men with no more than four years of formal education. In fact, a large percentage of Haredi men have no better education than that.
Along with the steady decline of Haredi men in the labor force, the Taub Center also charted a decline in the level of education for Haredi males. The expanded exemption from 1979 let the yeshivot k’tanot – high-school level religious studies – continue receiving government funding even if they failed to teach a core curriculum, especially after the exemption was widened in 2008.
As a result, Haredim are the only segment of the Israeli – perhaps even the developed world – population that has become less educated with each generation. Among Haredi men age 45 to 64, 15% have a college degree or more; among those 25 to 44, the rate is only half that.
The Taub study found that in 2014, among ultra-Orthodox men 35 to 54, 47% had an elementary school education or less, up from 31% 12 years earlier. Only 12% had the equivalent of a high school education, less than half the 26% in 2002.
“The model of a society of learners and all the dynamics of the last 35 years is going to crash big time,” said Regev. “The only question is how much pain it’s going to cause Haredim and all of Israeli society.”