Israeli Haredim and Israeli Arabs: The Duty to Work and the Duty to Provide Work
In practice some programs have begun to emerge to ease the economic integration of Haredim and Israeli Arabs into gainful employment situation, but worrying trends have not been reversed. To achieve these changes will require political, economic and educational changes. Lest we despair about present trends and their projected development, consider a scenario of hope and seeds of countertrends to be encouraged.
Dr. Tal Becker, an experienced legal advisor to the Israeli governments of the last 15 years, sketches how change in collation pattern might develop. This requires significant revision of political conceptions about the art of the possible in Israeli coalition politics and the reinforcement of Jewish values that honor economic self-reliance alongside the study of Torah.
In terms of coalition politics, foreign policy and security issues cannot be allowed to sideline all other socio-economic issues. For example, Israeli Zionist parties have refused to invite non-Zionist Arab parties to join the coalition, which would bring their community’s economic needs front and center in budgeting priorities. Further, the secular Zionist parties – Likud, Labor Yisrael Beitenu and Kadima – have in the past traded their concessions to Haredi economic support (as well as conversion and divorce issues) – without demanding Haredi national service or vocational training – in order to get their support on foreign policy issues.
If the overwhelming majority of secular and religious Zionist parties were to make such reforms central in exchange for funding Haredim, then much could be done.
Politicians must think more imaginatively if for no other reason that the fact that as the percentage of Haredi children increases the economy will not be able to support the burden, thus becoming a security issue as well as leading to backlash among voters who carry the state’s military and economic burden. In fact, twenty years ago, it was then-Minister of Finance Benjamin Netanyahu who cut back drastically on government coalition grants to Haredi yeshivot and on state allowances per child that mainly support Haredi families.
Becker notes that we need not take Haredi political clout and its attitude toward employment as a simple given. Sephardi Shas party has had as low as 11 seats (2009) and as high as 17 seats (1999) in the Knesset, compared to the Ashkenazi Aguda party’s five (2009). That is less than 15% of the Knesset. Within the Haredi Sephardi community there is a small minority calling for a return to Sephardi traditions like Maimonides that positively value work alongside Torah study. Many of the Shas voters are traditional Orthodox Sephardim who do work, though fewer and fewer of their adult Haredi children do.
Rav Haim Amsallem, a former member of the Shas party, has called publicly for the rejection of the Ashkenazi Haredi influence on Shas regarding this issue. He calls himself a “proud and level-headed haredi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbi.” I come from a moderate, sane Judaism and want to stay there, period. I’m a Zionist, I’m Sephardi, I’m ultra-Orthodox and I’m reasonable.” He was ejected from the party in 2010 after he publicly called for integrating Haredim into the work force and including the core studies required by law but not taught in Haredi schools, such as mathematic, English and civics:
I said that you can’t sustain tens of thousands of yeshiva students who study Torah within a framework where they aren’t actually studying Torah. You are essentially sentencing them to a life of poverty and making entire families miserable. This isn’t fitting for the Sephardi tradition. I also said that Shas had become a Lithuanian-Sephardi mutation.”
Earning a living and not needing to rely on the kindness of others was once a supreme value, as is says in the Talmud: ‘Better you should work skinning animal carcasses in the market than beg for tzedakah.
Rav Amsallem has created a movement called “Am Shalem” (The Whole People), a name derived by punning on his name, “Am-sallem,” which promotes a moderate Haredi Judaism, state Haredi schools that teach core curriculum including skills necessary for higher education. He declares it a disgrace that Israel has so many children living in poverty, especially Haredi ones and has created a forum with hi-tech executives to integrate Haredim into the work force, promotes collaboration with the army and hopes to develop a Haredi university like Yeshiva University. In his judgment, the low educational and economic level of Haredim has lowered the honor of Torah in the eyes of many Jews who would otherwise respect Judaism. Therefore, he is developing a campaign to legitimize the idea of Haredim who work, serve in the army and seek higher education in the Haredi public sphere.
Rav Amsallem admits:
I’m not mainstream ultra-Orthodox, I’m a little avant-garde, and in the current insanity, there’s a need for this voice to steady the rocking boat. The Torah and religion are being presented in a completely distorted light right now. As an Israeli rabbi who studied Torah his entire life, and served as a rabbi in Jewish communities both in Israel and around the world, I say to them: You are distorting the Torah’s image. This doesn’t represent our religion. This isn’t my forefathers’ religion. This hurts me because we were always the most progressive religion that produced scientists and philosophers and pre-eminent adjudicators of Jewish law like Maimonides, and now we’re viewed as a primitive religion. We’ve gotten into a situation we never should have. [i]
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman points out that despite strident ideology among Ashkenazi Lithuanian Haredim, the social reality of their followers is changing. Due to the enormous growth in the numbers beyond what can be supported by government subsidies. Haredim are finding their niches in Israel society de facto (such as going to malls, speaking Hebrew, not Yiddish). Women are already getting higher education, going to work and bringing in money, power and hence different attitudes. Many Haredi drops out from higher yeshivot are going to work in the army. More than 3,000 Haredim study at Kiryat Ono Academic College (established by Donniel’s brother, Ranan Hartman), alongside many more non-Haredim, but in separate programs.
Several promising programs toward integration of Haredim into the economy have begun of late. Haredim aged 18 may now choose two years of combat duty in separate units – without women officers or trainers – and then receive third year for occupational training (while the regular male recruit serves three years). Many of these are dropouts from Haredi yeshivot, though not from the Haredi lifestyle. Since 2007, the Israeli army has also been trying to integrate young Haredi men aged 22 into the technical corps in the Air Force, Navy, Intelligence Corps and more. Recruits for one and half to two years may study new technologies that will later help them support themselves after the army. Although they serve in units only with other Haredi men they are, all the same, serving the Israeli army. In 2010, 13% of the Haredi men of that age bracket served in the army and another 14% volunteered for civilian jobs in the army.
So, too, the secular teacher’s college, Achva, near Rehovot, has opened separate programs for pre-academic training for Haredi men who come in a separate entrance in the evening for night school after studying all day in the yeshiva, use the library after it is closed, and are taught by men alone. They will study math and English, which are not taught in their schools, and then hopefully continue for academic degrees. Achva is also known for its professional training of Arab citizens, especially in the field of education, including training for very religious Muslim women.
A program to upgrade Haredi women’s participation in the workforce, and thereby raise their social standing overall, is an initiative by Adina Bar Shalom, the daughter of the greatest Sephardic rabbi in Israel, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, former chief rabbi and the unrivaled halakhic authority of the Shas Sephardic Haredi party. She has organized the first Haredi degree-granting women’s college in social work and is now developing courses for psychology degrees, which her father has approved. [ii]
The journalist Yair Ettinger (Haaretz, December 30, 2011) has much to teach us about how to read the extremist phenomena in the Israeli Haredi community – against the grain. The more the extremist protest, the more they are worried about losing control. They are not the avant-garde but the rearguard trying to hold back a natural process of Haredim becoming more “Israeli” and more interested in a higher standard of living that can only be achieved by working more and in better quality jobs. He had this to teach us about the extremists – on the fringe of the Haredi community who spit a little Zionist-Orthodox girl attending school in Beit Shemesh. Those extremists, together with the old guard of rabbis, are moving toward greater self-ghettoization precisely when and because the Haredi rank and file are moving to greater economic integration.
Yair Ettinger reported that the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman’s banner headline just recently, on Hanukah 2011, was an open letter signed by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered the leader of the non-Hasidic, “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox: “We must protest and warn of all sorts of trends from outside to strike at the cruse of pureoil, to alter the spirit and the essence of the ultra-Orthodox public,” blared the headline. Theletter called for boycotting all the new study tracks designated for Haredim in academiaand employment programs in the army and civil service, since they were intended to form “a group of ultra-Orthodox subordinate to persons who have thrown off the burden [of obedience to the commandments], their rule and their culture.
Even the former spokesman of the extremist Eda Haredit, Shmuel Pappenheim, is studying for a degree at Bar-Ilan University and heads an office encouraging ultra-Orthodox employmentin Beit Shemesh. Pappenheim argues:
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox public has begun to understand that it needs to take its fate into its hands. There are thousands of ultra-Orthodox in thearmy, in academia, in the free professions. The religious public is heading toward something great, and the rabbis‘ attempts to stop this are like the rooster running in circles after being beheaded.” “I’m notseeing any students dropping out of ultra-Orthdox colleges” [due to Rabbi Elyashiv’s letter.] “That isn’t going to help anymore.”
The Beit Shemesh extremists are acting out of frustration, not ideology. They see society around them progressing and are frustrated. They do not really think; they just act violently for the sake of causing action and chaos.
Yair Ettinger interviewed Aryeh Goldhaber, an activist in the ultra-Orthodox reformist movement “Tov,” in Beit Shemesh. He says, “We are happy to be active partners in the larger Israelisociety – in employment, the army and studies, but the more openness there is, the louder the extremists shout.
These pragmatic developments to improve the integration of Israeli Arabs and Haredim in the economy need an ideational base – not primarily for either of the minorities – but for the majority who are truly responsible for the economy. The country must take the ethics of the economy more seriously and they will discover that it will pay off socially and economically, even in the short term.
If the leadership wishes they can easily find the votes for cutting off the extravagant counter-productive support for Haredi refusal to serve in national service or to work in the economy. Ideology or no ideology the overwhelming majority of Haredim – as their colleagues in America and Belgium and England – will seek employment. The leadership is always very sensitive to economic pressures and so they can certainly protest that they have “no choice” but to cut back stipends for those who do not work and for schools that do not teach basic economic skills.
Most important, an active civil society that turned out 450,000 people to protest for a budgetary adjustment to advance social justice can also turn out to demand more equality in the workplace for Arabs and more appropriate work opportunities for and from Haredim. If the majority strengthens its ideals, then the minorities can be accommodated and the sense of common purposes and solidarity across Israeli society enhanced.
We must reinforce the leaders’ and the citizens’ broad vision of their responsibilities for the common good, rather than to sectorial politics. We have a nation to build and that means – in the oldest Zionist sense – working on the land or in the land toward economic development of the country for the benefit of all its citizens. If modern Israel is about a celebration of the Jewish values of independence and self-reliance, and therefore of mutual responsibility for rich and poor, then it must enhance the opportunity and the duty to make a contribution to society – economic as well as military. Perhaps in this sense, even without agreeing with all his economic and welfare policies we can agree with the quip attributed to President Reagan: “We Americans do not get together to celebrate Dependence Day.”
Acknowledgments: With invaluable research help by Yonatan Zlotogorski, and helpful comments by Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi and Gil Troy – Noam Zion