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Israel

Why Israel's Special Privileges For Ultra Orthodox Must End

Since its inception, Israel has exempted ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service and offered them a host of subsidies. But as demographics change, many say the policy must end.

In Jerusalem
In Jerusalem
Michael Borgstede

TEL AVIV — An agitated young man is gesticulating wildly with his hands. “I will never let myself be drafted into the army, not at any price,” he says. “This plan by misguided judges and a godless government will fail — and then there will be civil war.”

Chaim Bleich is 19 years old and should be, on this sunny winter day, among the soldiers in Israeli military barracks. Instead the young man with the somewhat sparse beard, wearing black trousers a white shirt, is on his way to a religious school in the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak.

Not far off, Tel Aviv’s high-rises glitter in the sunlight. But being an ultra-Orthodox Jew, Bleich has never even been to the city.

The Haredim — the God-fearing — are a kind of subculture in Israeli society. They follow a particularly strict interpretation of Judaism and keep to themselves. They live in their own neighborhoods, send their children to their own schools, and for a long time were virtually exempt from mandatory military service.

That is now supposed to change, which explains Bleich's warnings about civil war.

Israeli Finance Minister Jair Lapid believes the likes of young men like Bleich should not continue to be exempt from military service. And the country’s top court sent a clear message last week of displeasure to the government about the fact that nobody in parliament seems to feel like burning their fingers on this red-hot issue.

The regulations in force up to now — which virtually exempted young Orthodox men from military service — have now run their course. And the politicians are not able to agree on new rules. So they continue to pay state money to religious schools, although legally the payments should have ceased long ago.

It’s fair to wonder how things ever got this far, because the problem is home-made, and in the history of Judaism there has never been anything like it.

Piece of the pie

In Israel’s founding year, 1948, ultra-Orthodox Jews had as many children as secular families, married at the same age, and were as integrated as secular folks into the job market. But innumerable irresponsible political decisions led to the Haredim being able to pursue a dream of life outside the modern mainstream with what would have been unthinkable consequences elsewhere.

Today, the Haredim make up 10% of the Israeli population; more than a fourth of Israeli first-graders are ultra-Orthodox. Because Orthodox men — in accordance with regulations that prevailed until now — were exempt from military service for so long because they were registered as full-time religious students, many of them never got jobs and therefore paid no taxes.

If something doesn’t change fast, soon only 35% of the population in Israel will be paying taxes and performing military service, Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy warned recently. The new head of the National Bank, Karnit Flug, brought up her concern about the issue during her very first day on the job: “It’s a strategic threat for the Israeli economy and Israeli society — a threat we cannot ignore.”

There are no lack of warnings, then, although there is a distinct dearth of solutions that hold water. Part of that is because of the hardened fronts, with many secular Jews maintaining that Orthodox “draft dodgers” should be made to do jail time, while the ultra-Orthodox are loathe to give up acquired privileges.

Economist Dan Ben David, director of the Taub Center for Social Studies, says unemployment rates in Israel are relatively low. But the number of people not looking for work and thus excluded from the statistics account for 20% of the population — nearly double the OECD average.

“It’s perverse,” David says. “Haredim in Great Britain and the United States earn their livings like everybody else. Only in Israel is the state supposed to finance life-long Torah studies!”

Even the new trend towards Orthodox fundamentalism is an Israeli creation: The renowned New York electronics business B&H is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and they don’t have an issue serving secular female customers. In Israel, the problem begins in school: “Religious Jews just don’t acquire the skills to even have a chance on the modern jobs market,” David says.

If you ask Chaim Bleich what he learned in school, he replies with utter conviction: “Everything I need.” But in fact, math and history were only in the regular curriculum in primary school.

He has never taken English or social studies. Since the eighth grade he has only studied the Talmud and the Torah. Time and again, there have been moves to make state subsidies for ultra-Orthodox schools dependent on the introduction of a binding basic curriculum, but the initiatives have failed every time.

Working hours

Motti Geldstein hasn’t given up hope. The head of the Kemach foundation doesn’t see a revolution ahead, but rather a slow road to change. Over the last three years, Kemach has helped some 12,000 Haredim onto the job market, he says. Work is still stigmatized by the religious community, and a worker has a much lower status than a religious student.

“Nevertheless, the figures are encouraging,” he says.

And indeed in 2011 some 45% of ultra-Orthodox men had jobs — a rise of about 20% over the past decade. For women, the figures in 2001 were already 47%, and today the figure is 61%. That’s not surprising: Education for girls is significantly more practically focused. After 12 years of religious and secular studies, girls often get two years of vocational training.

Racheli Ganot, for example, completed her first computer course at the age of 16. She enjoyed it, and pursued computer studies. Today, she is a mother of three and the boss of Rachip, a company that provides software and design for semi-conductor manufacturers. Seventy ultra-Orthodox women like herself work for her, most of whose husbands are studying in the religious schools.

“You know, it’s good that way,” she says. “Nothing is more important than learning, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Anybody seriously planning to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli jobs market needs to proceed with a great deal of sensitivity and invest plenty of money. While the measures introduced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his stint as finance minister from 2003 to 2005 did lead to more Orthodox Jews getting jobs, the poverty rates among the Haredim remained largely unchanged. Meanwhile, the government subsidizes every ultra-Orthodox employee for five years. That’s an incentive companies understand.

Some 800 ultra-Orthodox women work at the Matrix software company in the religious settlement of Modiin Illit. Here, social spaces and cantines are kept separate for male and female employees, the doors have glass partitions so men and women are never left alone together, and two rabbis are on hand to answer important questions, like should I take a break to pray? (Answer: It's not necessary.)

Somewhat shorter working hours make it easier to get the kids out of day care on time, but the price for working in a place in tune with their religious beliefs is significantly lower pay than, say, a programmer in secular Herzliya would be making.

Still, says Itzik Crombie, the Orthodox head of iSale Global who has founded the first high-tech conference for ultra-Orthodox Jews, says some 10,000 religious Jews already work in the technology sector.

The issue of lack of general education doesn’t pose a problem for Crombie. “Anybody who has studied the Talmud and Hebrew numerology for years in a religious school is perfectly capable of learning a programming language,” he insists. “Our brains are made for it!”

But it may be a while before the politics of the issue catches up to the economics. Crombie says he invited all the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members to his recent lecture, and not a single one showed up.

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