Go Figure / Who Is a Haredi?

Israel’s incessant religious strife has been replaced in recent years by another battle entirely: one of numbers. Each side to the political war whips out dramatic figures pertaining to the Haredim, which are countered by very different numbers from the other side.

The figures are supposed to accurately segment the Haredim from the rest of the population. But the numbers should be treated with suspicion, because of the fog shrouding the Haredi population. It is easy to separate men from women, or academic graduates from non-academics, or Jews from Arabs. But no formula has been found to define who is a Haredi.

Is a person who wears a shtreimel but watches television a Haredi, or does he belong to the religious-national segment? What about a lawyer who studied at a Haredi yeshiva in his youth?

Yet recent headlines shrieked that non-employment among the Haredim shot up threefold in 30 years, to 65%. Everybody knows about the problem of unemployment in the sector, whether willing or not. Nobody questioned the accuracy of the figures, which come from the Central Bureau of Statistics.

How did the authors of the survey define Haredim? One question asked: “What type was your last school?” The options included: Elementary, vocational or regular high school, professional college, academic institution or − yeshiva. They decided that whoever marked that last option was a Haredi ‏(in the case of women, their classification was based on the husband’s last place of study‏).

But that segmentation completely warped the statistics, because it assumes that anybody who decided to study and then work is not Haredi. How? Because that person’s last place of study wouldn’t be a yeshiva. They classified such persons as secular.

Anybody familiar with the Haredi sector and the dramatic changes it has undergone in recent years knows that it is no longer rare for them to study and participate in the workforce. Unemployment remains a severe problem that threatens Israel’s economic future: But meanwhile, it is very hard to find reliable figures on the true scope of the problem.