The Women Who Really Bear the Burden in Israel

Amidst the calls for equal sharing of the national burden and stereotypes of the Israeli economy's Arab and Haredi 'parasites,' thousands of women from these communities who operate home day care centers are fighting for equal employment rights.

It seems that equitable bearing of the burden is Israel’s most pressing issue. After all, how can the public’s demand for social justice be met without drafting yeshiva students or integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the labor force? Much has already been written about the former issue. But the public and its elected officials, the champions of equality in bearing the burden, associate the still-low rate of Haredi participation in the workforce with the well-known parasitism of the Haredim.

The very idea of Haredi families in which both parents work seems as fantastic to the general Israeli public as the idea of Haredim making up the majority of the army's General Staff. But very many Haredi families find it hard to make ends meet and to save up in order to realize the dream of home ownership.

Unfortunately, even when there are social protests the general feeling among Haredim is a sense of detachment. That is why, for example, the first protest tent to go up in the ultra-Orthodox community of Elad during the summer of 2011 came down soon after: not for fear of social unrest, but rather out of a reluctance to attract criticism. That’s all we need, detractors said - that we "parasites" should be seen as catching a ride on the protest's coattails.

But this struggle is our struggle, too. Not in the name of slogans such as Jewish unity or outreach to non-religiously observant Jews, but in the name of the tens of thousands of Haredim who go out to work every day. In the name of the thousands of Haredi families in which both parents work, yet still have difficulty supporting themselves.

You might not know about these people because they face, in addition to the daily grind, incitement on the part of government agencies. You have been trained to hear that the Haredi and the Arab sectors are a millstone around the neck of the middle class. Even when the Finance Ministry is harshly criticized, this incitement remains at the center of the consensus.

Allow me to invite you into a different reality, one familiar to thousands of Arab women and to Haredi women like myself, who work 11 hours a day, six days a week and earn NIS 3,800 a month with no benefits, for an employer that does not recognize them (us) as his employees. You know this employer well: it is the Israeli government.

The basic idea is terrific. I and another 3,000 or so women in the geographic and socioeconomic periphery (mainly, as I noted, from the Arab and Haredi communities), operate day care centers in our homes. The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry subsidizes the fees, enabling parents from poor families to go out to work, and also supervises the facilities.

More than 15,000 toddlers are cared for in these home day care centers, which are located throughout the country, from Arab communities in the north, to Bnei Brak and other Tel Aviv-area cities in the center to Bedouin communities in the south.

But what about us, the women who run them? The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry does not recognize us as its employees, but rather as self-employed individuals.

But we, in contrast to the self-employed, are not at liberty to take off from work at will for vacation, or even to sit shivah. In addition, we have mandatory expenses amounting to thousands of shekels each month, effectively giving us a salary close to minimum wage. Benefits? Forget about it.

Does a discussion of the employment terms of Haredi and Arab women sound like science fiction, at odds with our "parasite" image? There are people who make sure to fuel that bit of gratuitous hatred. It’s not "new politics," it’s an old tradition. Even the combination of words, "Haredi and Arab women," is still dissonant. And in order not to confuse the public with facts, new and damaging standards of employment are being created.

It is conceivable that this hatred, or at least the wariness, has trickled down to us as well, Haredim against Arabs and vice versa. But in troubled times, we have discovered each other. For example, I found Mariam, who is from one of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Abu Basma Regional Council, in the south, as well as Fathia from Sakhnin and Kati from Tel Aviv.

We all belong to the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry's unrecognized female working class. Together, we established the home day care providers' union through the Koach La Ovdim Democratic Workers’ Organization and started our struggle, which has already gotten results. It’s a tough, Sisyphean battle, a long-distance run.

Every summer, in the shadow of our threat to strike, we obtain a specific achievement. A summer protest, if you will, that has no connection to the general struggle of the middle class (however it should turn out).

In the meantime, the call for equal sharing of the burden is unfortunately replacing the call for social justice. And we, in Bnei Brak and Sakhnin, in Elad and the Negev, will lower our profile and dream about a proper pension and benefits at work. You know – the subjects that bother parasitic minorities.

The writer, a Haredi woman and the mother of 11 children, is part of the struggle of Arab and Haredi home day-care providers.

Amy Caron-Shif