Unorthodoxies

In our last episode, dear viewers, we watched as Israel's main opposition party, Kadima, sold out its centrist voters and joined Benjamin Netanyahu's government—thereby providing the prime minister a reprieve of over a year before he must face the voters. This allows Bibi more time to raise regressive taxes, evade negotiations with the Palestinians, and deride diplomatic efforts to solve the Iranian nuclear issue.

But perhaps there's a bright spot in this dark plot line. To paraphrase a question I've heard repeatedly over the last couple of weeks: Since the new coalition is broad enough to maintain its majority in parliament even if clerical parties walk out, can it finally end one of the strangest and best-known aberrations of Israeli life? Can it end the bizarre pork-barreling that allows most ultra-Orthodox men to spend their life in religious studies rather than working? After all, isn't the Israeli economy slowly sinking as the ultra-Orthodox community grows and the financial burden increases?

The question makes sense, especially the part about the economic costs of current trends. And Netanyahu has shown in the past that he likes budget cuts as a way of attacking this and other problems. But the real solution is a lot more complicated, and actually requires the government to spend more money in the short term. It also requires thinking of the ultra-Orthodox as a community made up of real people struggling with their situation, rather than a faceless mass. While avoiding predictions, I'd bet against Netanyahu's government designing the subtle and humane policies needed for change.

The term "ultra-Orthodox"—or haredi in Hebrew—historically refers to those Jews who reacted to modernity by sticking strictly to traditional religious practice and avoiding integration into surrounding culture. When Israel was established, they were a tiny minority, generally expected to fade away by attrition. As I've explained elsewhere, state policies—starting with government funding for ultra-Orthodox education—contributed to the opposite happening. Haredi women worked as teachers in state-funded schools and supported husbands who continued their religious studies in kollelim, Talmudic academies for married men. The eternal students got draft deferments, allowing them to avoid the secular pressures of army service. The average marriage age dropped; the average family size rose. Self-segregation from mainstream Israeli society increased. A community expected to vanish instead grew.

In politics, haredi parties have been convenient coalition partners: their conditions for supporting the government of the moment focus on funding for ultra-Orthodox education, stipends for large families, and subsidized housing. Ultra-Orthodox schools—especially for teenage boys—have been exempted from teaching basic subjects such as math, English, history, and civics. While measuring the haredi population is tough—there's no precise definition of who should be counted—a 2004 study estimated that the ultra-Orthodox made up 7 percent of Israel's population and rising, with a fertility rate thrice that of other Israeli Jews. By 2008, two-thirds of haredi men aged 35 to 55—the prime working years—were not employed. And despite all the state funds, two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox families were below the poverty line.

Israel can't go on like this. On the macro level, looking at large groups, the ultra-Orthodox are living off of other Israelis' labor, and the numbers of the non-working are on the rise. So why not just cut the subsidies and force them into the job market?

For one thing, on the micro level the individual ultra-Orthodox family is trapped by circumstances not of its making. The father is likely to have an a eighth-grade general education at best, no job skills, and no experience of working or even looking for work. The mother's education may be marginally better, but unemployment among women is also high. Social pressures unimaginable to those outside their society led them to marry by age 20 and quickly have several children. In the surrounding society, they are foreigners, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and often disliked. They are already living in poverty; a drop in state help will leave them more desperate, but not more employable.

Experience bears this out. In 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed what was essentially a war government of the major parties, without the ultra-Orthodox. His finance minister, one Benjamin Netanyahu, pursued free-market policies with a passion. Along with tax cuts for better-off Israelis, he slashed state stipends to large families, a move affecting mainly the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs. Defying expectations of economic determinists, the change caused only a small drop in the haredi birth rate. Finances, it seems, can change culture, but it takes a long time. Ultra-Orthodox men didn't leave their studies in droves to work; they couldn't.

But it's true that poverty got even worse, and poverty is one reason for signs of change, at least on the edges of haredi society. Another factor is the Internet, which provides an avenue to knowledge of the outside world and forums for free discussion of internal issues.

Around Israel, a number of colleges have opened that cater exclusively to the ultra-Orthodox, offering professional tracks in single-sex classes. Studies begin with high-speed preparatory courses to make up for missing high-school education. There are several thousand haredi men and women in such programs—again, the numbers depend on who you count as haredi.  Depending on who you ask, this is an impressive start or far too little.

A bigger shift into the work world would require the government to lay out more money, not less. It would need to pay for vocational training and colleges; for programs that teach people how to look for work and how to keep a job; for scholarships to support families that now get by partly on small stipends paid by their kollelim. Politically, selling such programs would be a difficult balancing act: The ultra-Orthodox must be persuaded that they're not being asked to give up their religious beliefs. The Israeli majority must be persuaded to accept another kind of extra spending on the ultra-Orthodox now in return for a payoff later.

And there's a tougher political challenge: The job effort has to be temporary, not permanent. It has to be aimed at those who've already reached adulthood without a modern education. But it must be coupled with putting that kind of education into haredi schools—a move that the community's leaders will desperately resist.

This is the brief introduction. I could add several volumes on how complicated and essential this social change is, how hard it will be to negotiate. But an economic philosophy based on lower taxes for the rich and smaller government involvement—Benjamin Netanyahu's economic philosophy—isn't up to the job. Maybe Netanyahu can use a wider coalition to adopt some, well, unorthodox economic ideas. It would be nice to be surprised in the next episode of the Israeli political drama. But don't count on it.

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