Unemployment: Israel's Other Existential Threat

Israel's 62nd Independence Day is just a couple of days away, but the War of Independence is not yet over. We have neither security, nor peace, nor quiet, we are entirely dependent on a single superpower, and we are the only country in the world facing a looming existential threat.

But these are only the visible dangers, the ones that are always being talked about. Away from the spotlight, an internal threat is brewing that is no less dangerous, one slowly wearing the country down and placing it in danger of collapse. As summed up last week in a study led by Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center, the Zionist dream is itself under threat of extinction.

Taub's report on employment found that a considerable portion of the Israeli population doesn't see itself as part of the workforce. These are people who have removed themselves from the collective body and decided to live at the expense of the public, as well as those who have left the job market due to lack of education or professional training. The unfortunate result is that only 56 percent of Israel's potential workforce is employed, a figure that stands at 66 percent among Western countries, and that gap is only growing wider.

The unemployed are concentrated in two communities: ultra-Orthodox and Arabs. Thirty years ago, only 21 percent of ultra-Orthodox said they didn't see themselves as part of the job market. Today that figure stands at 65 percent. Among Arab men, unemployment has risen to 27 percent.

This state of affairs was brought on by the cynical, shortsighted policy Israel has taken since the 1970s - when public pressure (much of it driven by the so-called Black Panthers) demanded the government take measures to address poverty. But instead of creating a long-term plan for improving education, professional training and infrastructure, the government took the easy route of simply increasing outlays to the unemployed. Over the past four decades, unemployment benefits have ballooned five times over (!) per capita. The additional funding did not help the situation. As these budgets grew, more and more people chose to leave the workforce because it simply paid off.

Another major reason for poverty is the phenomenon of large families, most prevalent among the Haredi and Arab communities. In 1960, children from these two communities made up a total of only 15 percent of all elementary students. That figure stands at no less than 50 percent today, and in 30 years will reach 78 percent (!).

And that will be the breaking point: The body of working Israelis will be so small, it will no longer be able to carry these parasites on its back. After all, even the strongest donkey buckles under too heavy a load. The working minority will not agree to pay all of its income in tax, the Zionist dream will collapse, entrepreneurs and the wealthy will leave and those remaining will continue living off of donations from abroad, as did members of the pre-state Yishuv in the 19th century.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is apparently unperturbed, more concerned about the stability of his government coalition than anything else. He knows that to stop these dangerous processes he will have to take unprecedented measures that will not be popular.

First, the money flow must be stemmed to the independent schools systems run by the Shas and Agudat Yisrael parties and the Islamic Movement. Every child in Israel should be taught from the same curriculum based on core subjects like science, mathematics, English and history. Later on in the school day, each sector can teach its students what it likes.

Budgetary support for yeshivas must also be cut, and every ultra-Orthodox individual drafted to the military. They too should put their lives at risk; perhaps their worldview would change as a result. Military service would connect them to Israeli society and its problems, and raise the likelihood that they will turn into citizens who earn their own livelihoods.

Family allowances ought to be cut as well, starting with the fifth child. In most families with many children, each new birth automatically perpetuates the cycle of poverty. If parents want eight children, let them support their brood themselves. Of course, entering the workforce should also be encouraged by subsidizing public transportation, building day care centers, augmenting the Wisconsin welfare-to-work program and instituting a negative income tax.

Should all of these reforms be undertaken, we will have good reason to celebrate our 63rd Independence Day with a twinkle of hope in our eyes.