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Ethics of Economics: The Haredi Challenge Part 1

The Threat From Wasted Potential
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Israeli Haredim and Israeli Arabs: The Duty to Work and the Duty to Provide Work

Part 1: The Threat From Wasted Potential 

My child, do not lead a beggar’s life; it is better to die than to beg.
When a man looks to another’s table [for handouts],
His existence cannot be considered life. (Ben Sira 40: 29)
Ultra-Orthodox men from Israel travel to the United States to beg from door to door at addresses that are handed (passed?) on from one beggar to the next. At the home of Dr. Jerry Hillman in a modern Orthodox community in Detroit, the beggars will often come with a copy of the cancelled checks written in a previous season to their colleagues and demand that they receive no less a sum of tzedakah.
Once Jerry greeted and invited into his home an 18-year-old yeshiva student who announced he was getting married and needed funds. Jerry asked him if he had considered getting a job to earn what he needed for the wedding. The boy replied quizzically: “Then I would have to wait?!” “Yes,” said his host, “like our father Jacob who waited 7 years and who worked for his father-in-law for 14 to pay for his brides.” Then Jerry gave him one dollar and the boy cursed him vociferously. Jerry said: “So give me back the dollar.” The mendicant beggar refused to give the dollar back but finally left.
A Haredi guy gets on bus to Jerusalem with one open seat next to him. At the next stop a scantily clad woman sits next to him. He hands the young woman an apple. She says, “What’s with the apple?” He says, “After Eve ate the apple she realized she wasn’t modest and put on clothes.” The next day the woman gets on the bus in somewhat more modest attire. She sits next to the same man and hands him an apple. He asks “what is the apple for?” She says “after Adam ate the apple he learned that he had to work for a living!” – Jerusalem Facebook Humor (2012)

Israel, Zionist Israel, is facing a vexing double crisis with two large and fast growing minorities – haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Israeli Arabs. Both sectors, which together constitute almost 30 percent of the general population, are for the most part self-enclosed, voluntarily separatist communities speaking their own language, maintaining their own religious traditions. Some Arabs and Haredim live in separate villages and cities, and others in well-defined neighborhoods within larger mixed cities.

These two communities not only lack much of the ethos of citizenship in a democratic Jewish national state, they ideologically oppose it. Hence they do not, for the most part, serve in the Israeli army, nor do they perform national service in other forms, such as volunteering in hospitals or schools, which would also guarantee them special financial benefits similar to those granted Israeli GIs. Some of their leaders articulate rabid anti-Israel sentiments, which do not recognize the moral legitimacy of the majority regime or the laws of the state, though on a daily basis they are law-abiding citizens. Within each community there is a range of ideological positions vis-à-vis the State of Israel, but zealous extremists are constantly pushing the more moderate populations to greater extremism, especially with right-wing religiosity continuing to pressure the next generation to take stands that are more religious than those of their parents.

Both communities also experienced trends toward secularization or accommodation with modern life in Israel. Already in the 1950s haredi ideologues moved to condemn those trends and later, in the 1970s, the move toward great religiosity across the Muslim world, led by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and reinforced by the Shiite revolution in Iran, began to win more and more advocates for stricter piety among Israeli Arabs. However, Muslim piety does not idealize full-time study at the expense of employment the way Ashkenazi Haredim in Israel do.

Israeli Arabs do vote in Israeli elections, with the exception of some militant Muslim religious sectarians. Those Israeli Arabs [i] who vote often split their support among smaller parties, none of which has ever been invited to participate in the ruling coalition with the extra funding for one’s constituency that often goes with being in power. By contrast, the Haredim usually vote for one of two united parties – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi (émigrés of Balkan, North African and Middle Eastern Asian Jewish communities). Approximately 90% of them, higher than any other sector in Israeli society – both men and women – participate in Israeli elections. The Haredi parties almost always enter the ruling coalition thereby winning many benefits as part of the coalition agreements.

These two marginal groups are growing rapidly and will soon – some say 30 years hence – constitute 50% of Israel’s citizens. Each sector has more than average size families (Arabs average 3.24 children per family. Jews average 2.33, but Haredim as a subgroup among Jews in Israel average much more, approaching seven). [ii]

These reproduction rates far outstrip Israeli citizens – Zionist religious and secular – who do serve in the army. In 2009, the Taub Center, under Professor Dan Ben-David, forecast that by 2040, 78% of the children in elementary school will be Arabs or Haredim and only 14% secular Israelis. Today, they are already 26% of the elementary school population.

Israeli Arabs and Haredim are the most poorly educated in Israel in terms of marketable skills, even though the Haredim study more Talmud and devote more total hours to education and more years than anyone else. Both sectors also have the highest unemployment rates. Now the official Israeli unemployment rate is very low at 5.1% from those actively seeking employment (ages 25-64), yet only 72% of this age bracket are employed.

Significant numbers of male Haredim are not seeking employment at all. In 2009, approximately 35%-38% of Haredi men were employed, as were 57% of Haredi women, [iii] and 58% of the Arab population. Arab employment among males has declined in the last 30 years from 85% to 73%, while Haredi male unemployment has declined from 79% to 35%. Non-Haredi Israeli Jewish men have only a 15% unemployment rate, slightly above the 12% in Western countries. [iv] Most Arab unemployment is involuntary due to the mismatch between their skills and the economy as well as the anti-Arab biases in hiring, while most Haredi male unemployment is voluntary.

Dan Senor and Saul Singer have pointed out in Start-Up Nation how the wasted work potential of the Israeli Arab and Haredi men and women threatens Israel’s otherwise amazing hi-tech economy.

Economist Dan Ben-David is sounding the alarm on Israel’s continued economic growth. The problem is that while the tech sector has been surging ahead and becoming more productive, the rest of the economy has not been keeping up. “It’s like an engine,” he says. “You have all the cylinders in the engine. You have all the population in the country. But we’re using fewer and fewer of the cylinders to move this machine forward.”

This underutilization brings us to what we believe is the biggest threat to Israel’s continued economic growth: low participation in the economy. A little more than half of Israel’s workforce contributes to the economy in a productive way, compared to a 65 percent rate in the United States. The low Israeli workforce participation rate is chiefly attributable to two minority communities: haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Israeli Arabs.

Among mainstream Israeli Jewish civilians aged 25-64, to take one metric, 84 percent of men and 75 percent of women are employed. Among Arab women and Haredi men, these percentages are almost flipped: 79 percent and 73 percent, respectively, are not employed.

Because of the high birth rates in both the haredi and the Arab sectors, efforts to increase workforce participation in these sectors are racing against the demographic clock. According to Israel 2028, the report issued by an official blue-ribbon commission, the Haredi and Arab sectors are projected to increase from 29 percent of Israel’s total population in 2007 to 39 percent by 2028. Without dramatic changes in workforce patterns, this shift will reduce labor-force participation rates even further.

My conclusion is that Israel, in the name of a Jewish and a democratic “ethics of economy,” must commit itself to policies that enable all – Arab and Jew alike – who wish to work to gain the skills and opportunities to work. At the same time, they ought to provide powerful disincentives to those who do not wish to gain the marketable skills and incentives both financial and social acknowledgment for citizens willing to enrich themselves by their industry and to contribute their fair share to the “commonwealth.” We can learn from the wisdom of a member of the French Revolution from the dawn of Western democracy:

Every man has a right to sub­sistence. The duty of society therefore is to seek to prevent misfortune, to relieve it, to offer work to those who need it in order to live, to force them if they refuse to work, and finally to assist without work those whose age or infirmity deprive them of the ability to work. (Francois Rochefoulcauld ­Liancourt, the leading member of the Revolutionary Assembly, 1790)

[i] Most Arab citizens of Jerusalem, one third of the capital city’s residents, opted not to become Israeli citizens in 1967 when captured in 1967. But they have municipal voting rights. Still they almost never choose to vote (less than 5 per cent) in the municipal elections and lacking representative they have not had the political clout to demand a fair share of city services.





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