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Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews Are Back to Studying Torah, Thanks to Netanyahu

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A boy reads religious texts as he prays during a class at Moaz Hatorah, an all-boys school, in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, Israel July 12, 2017.
A boy reads religious texts as he prays during a class at Moaz Hatorah, an all-boys school, in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, Israel July 12, 2017. Credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chronic worries about Israel’s survival are remarkably selective. When it comes to the Iranian threat, he is ready to risk war and diplomatic capital to stop its bomb-making ambitions, and when it comes to the Palestinians he won’t give an inch even if it involves alienating Israel’s closest ally.

But when it comes to the threats Israel faces at home, suddenly Mr. Security becomes Mr. Coalition. He is willing to sacrifice anything to keep the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government, no matter the cost to the economy and, make no mistake, Israel’s long-term survival.

The price we’re paying came up this week in a seemingly arcane statistic about the labor participation rate of ultra-Orthodox men published by the treasury. The percentage of working-age Haredi men who hold a job or are actively looking dropped in the past 18 months below 51%, from a peak of 53.8%. By comparison, for non-Haredi Jewish men, the rate is 87.6%.

So what?

For any economy to prosper, it needs to have as much of its adult population as possible in the workforce to produce goods, perform services and pay taxes (as against seeking government help). For many years, Haredim in Israel have preferred their men to shun work in favor of full-time religious study, and a growing system of government support starting in the late 1970s enabled them to do that.

By the early 2000s, as the percentage of nonworking ultra-Orthodox climbed and the community’s population swelled, the situation was becoming economically intolerable. The money going to allowances was a strain in the budget and Israel’s low labor participation rate was a growing drag on the economy.

Looking ahead, the problem will only grow worse as Israel’s population ages and the growth of the overall workforce slows. In short, if the ultra-Orthodox don’t begin to hold up their end of the economy, our children and grandchildren will be a lot poorer. If they don’t serve in the army, we will also be a lot less secure, for lack of recruits.

The obvious answer is to coax Haredi men into the workforce with sticks (like cuts in government benefits and forcing Haredi schools to teach work-relevant subjects like math and English) and carrots (like training programs and better access to higher education). In the Haredi case, drafting more men into the army was another stick, a way to give them vocational training and a taste of non-Haredi Israel.

All this work has been undone by the current Netanyahu government as the price for bringing the ultra-Orthodox parties into the coalition. The government made it easier for Haredim again to avoid the draft (that is, until the High Court this month said it violated the principle of equality). Haredi schools are no longer under pressure to teach a core curriculum and the government has opened its wallet again for adult male full-time religious students).

The treasury report acknowledges all of this, but puts it in vague terms about “changes in the incentive system.” The real reason is a cynical and self-interested sellout by Netanyahu to Haredi interests.

The preliminary results are now in. After a decade and a half of growing employment among Haredi men (and even more so for Haredi women), the trend plateaued not long after the current government took office and has been declining. This has nothing to do with the broader economy, where unemployment is at its lowest in decades and there are even pockets of labor shortages.

No one should be surprised. There’s been a lot of talk about how economic pressures in the Haredi community are forcing them to rethink the “society of learners model.” Or how ordinary Haredim, with internet access, are growing more independent of their rabbis or that there is an emerging Haredi middle class that likes the good life and is pursuing careers to pay for it.

That all may be true, but it’s a marginal phenomenon. The number of Haredi soldiers or college students pales compared to the number of adult yeshiva students, and it isn’t growing. Many of the ones who serve or study are on the margins of Haredi society.

The rabbis have done an excellent job of creating a community that is not only ideologically resistant to the idea of working or army service, but have created a population of people unable to do either. Without basic knowledge of math, modern Hebrew, English or civics, the ordinary Haredi can’t get a degree or find a well-paying job. The community values that look down on work or army service are enforced vigorously and sometimes violently.

None of this has to be. The Haredi argument in that men studying Torah all day is the will of God, a way of life going back centuries, maybe to Sinai itself. As MK Menachem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism) said on the draft ruling this month: “The High Court of Justice once again proves how cut off it is from Jewish tradition and how deep is its hatred for anything dear to those who study Torah and the guardians of religion.”

Moses may believe what he says — after all the Haredi curriculum doesn’t include any history, much less algebra — but the society of learners is a modern phenomenon, created and supported by the Israeli welfare state. It was a luxury the rest of Israel indulged the ultra-Orthodox world with, but that time has passed.

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