Religious Affairs: The ultra-Orthodox - Israel’s next 'economic miracle?'

The ultra-Orthodox community could be Israel’s next big growth engine, if only the state would embark on a path of compromise, not coercion, argues Prof. Yedidia Stern.

April 23, 2015 22:47

Haredim. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)

One of the standout themes of the last government was the battle Yesh Atid led in trying to reform the relationship of the state to the ultra-Orthodox community.

The 32nd government disintegrated largely over the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment, and Yair Lapid’s newly formed party campaigned on a platform of rolling back concessions and benefits enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox community, such as their exemption from military service and state largesse toward yeshiva students.

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Yesh Atid did accomplish several of its stated goals, including passing a law requiring obligatory haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription by 2017 and cutting in half the budget for yeshiva student stipends.

But in so doing the party aroused the ire of the haredi leadership and, following the recent election, Lapid’s faction is no longer in a position to implement, enforce or maintain some of the victories it scored while in office.

And the haredi political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas are, in their turn, busy rolling back some of the most critical aspects of the Yesh Atid achievements, insisting in their coalition negotiations with the Likud on gutting the law for haredi conscription and increasing yeshiva budgets once again.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Prof. Yedidia Stern, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s religion and state project and a professor at the Law Faculty at Bar-Ilan University, said that it was time for a new approach to the relationship of the state to the haredi community.

Stern said that the next government should reexamine how it deals with the central projects of increasing haredi participation in the military, introducing core curriculum studies to the haredi education system, increasing the participation of haredi men in the work force, and, critically, increasing haredi economic productivity.

A more long-term approach must be adopted in order to achieve such goals, outside of the short-term, politically convenient solutions found in coalition agreements that are being negotiated right now, he said.

“As long as the haredim have their own parties they will be part of the decision-making process in Israel for good or bad, so we must decide what the parameters will be for the social contract we as a state want to have with this very important community,” said Stern.

Indeed, the professor said that the haredim could be Israel’s next “economic miracle,” after the economic boosts provided by the immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the hi-tech and start-up hub in Tel Aviv and the country’s central region, but he accused Yesh Atid of having spawned serious radicalization due to what he described as the “insensitive” conscription law, which is portrayed by the haredi community as having criminalized Torah study. “The haredim are a potentially major engine for growth for the State of Israel, if we can avoid a culture war with them,” Stern said.

“But Yesh Atid poured sugar into this engine, gumming it up and preventing change. The fact that the government was so antagonistic to the haredi community was very detrimental, and there was not one prominent expert on haredim who said the conscription law they passed was a good solution,” he continued, calling the passage of the law “an unnecessary slap in the face” to the haredi community.

“We don’t want them to be against us, we want them to be with us, but the last government was against them and tried to demonize an important sector of the population.”

One of the major consequences of the conscription law, according to the professor, was the radicalization of a significant portion of the community, possibly 15 percent of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic haredi sector, which has coalesced around the leadership of the hardline Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach.

The rabbi has called to what amounts to a civil rebellion against conscription, and several hundred yeshiva students associated with his faction have refused to even present themselves for preliminary processing by the IDF, as do mainstream haredi yeshiva students, rendering them in contravention of the law.

Stern said he is calling for a different approach to the one that according to him has allowed the extremist rabbis, such as Auerbach, to dictate the mutinous and uncompromising agenda inside the haredi community.

“We cannot defeat the haredim and they cannot defeat us, and we need them and they need us, so we should cut some kind of balanced deal for the long run with terms we can both live with.”

He also argues that the mainstream haredi leadership understands the boundaries of its political power, constrained by the limit to which Israel’s economy and society will bear an uneven distribution of societal obligations, and the extent to which the High Court of Justice will tolerate such disparities.

The formula for the state underwriting the haredi community’s security and financial viability worked when the size of the haredi population was 200,000 to 300,000, said Stern, “but it just cannot bear the burden of 700,000 or 800,000 people right now, nor the one million-strong haredi community that will emerge in the coming years.”

Taking all this into account, Stern is proposing that a professional committee comprising of haredi leaders, politicians, municipal authority heads, rabbis, business leaders, as well as experts on haredi society, should be convened to draw up a master plan for state’s future relationship with the haredi community, focusing on the three central issues of conscription, education, and employment.

Because of their constraints, Stern said that he strongly believes and understands that the haredi political leadership acknowledges these concerns and is ready to quietly begin addressing them.

First is the issue of haredi conscription. It is likely that the provision in the law for haredi conscription passed by the last government that mandates obligatory enlistment for yeshiva students will be removed from the law at the behest of the haredi political parties, and that no new sanctions will be imposed within the framework of the legislation.

But any such revisions of the law will likely see the High Court of Justice intervene and strike them down.

In such a legal limbo, Stern is suggesting, as he did during the debate on the Yesh Atid conscription law, that economic sanctions be used as both negative and positive incentives to induce greater haredi enlistment.

The framework of such a law would reestablish the yeshiva budgets as they were ante-bellum, that is before Yesh Atid cut them in half from more than one billion shekels to under half a billion.

Targets would then be established for haredi conscription every year. Yeshivas would receive additional funding for every student who enlisted, but the entire nationwide budget for yeshiva-study stipends would be significantly cut if the haredi community as a whole would fail to meet the quotas.

This, Stern argues, would provide enough of an incentive for yeshiva deans to usher out of their institutions the large number of students, likely a majority, who do not fulfill their study obligations and who are not suited to full-time yeshiva study.

In so doing, it would also dramatically rebalance the scales of equality in military service, enough at least to satisfy the High Court.

Education is the second challenge, especially in the realm of higher education. Here Stern said that the most important goal is to attract young haredi men and women into some of the leading institutions of higher education in order to start generating haredi doctors and engineers who will serve as role models for other members of their community.

“Currently, most of the working haredi sector, men and women, are in low- to medium- level jobs which are not utilizing their talents and potential skills, and not driving them to be the best they can be,” he said.

“But once most of the haredim are middle class, then most of the problem will be over because then the haredi community will have something to lose.”

Increasing haredi economic productivity requires two things, said Stern. Firstly is to get some of the core curriculum subjects, such as Math and English, taught in haredi elementary and high schools.

This, he said, can also be done through financial incentives, albeit negative ones, but that such requirements could still be acceptable – if not very palatable – to the haredi leadership if carried out in a suitably subtle and delicate manner.

But the professor said that higher education for haredim must be provided “on their terms,” meaning that if haredim ask for gender-separate courses then this must be provided for them.

“Opposition to gender-separate studies for haredim is I think a misunderstanding of the role of higher education,” he said. “In the name of important but very abstract principles of equality, we will deny some 11 percent of the population the possibility of gaining the best education Israel can offer them.”

Stern said that he hopes institutions like the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and others will open courses for the best and brightest of the haredi community that will serve as spur to others to not only enter the work force but seek to do so at the highest professional levels.

“The Israeli economy is currently losing NIS 8 billion a year because haredi men are not working in sufficient numbers. But when a haredi person has a cousin who is a doctor or an engineer or something similar, and is living a middle class yet haredi life, this will have a tremendous impact on the rest of the community.

“The haredim are the next miracle which could happen to Israel. We don’t need immigrants, we don’t need start-ups, we don’t need more territory, the human resources we need are already here, we just need to let it flourish.”

In the meantime, politics as usual continues apace. Coalition negotiations between the Likud, United Torah Judaism and Shas are proving fruitful, and the leading haredi MKs are bullish about their chances of overturning the much hated legislation and reforms that were pushed through during the last government.

The approach the new government takes to these issues is likely to once again be based on short-term political considerations and expediencies. But it would surely be worthwhile for the country and its leaders to conduct a broader, deeper examination of the future of the state’s relationship with the haredi sector along the lines Stern has outlined, for the benefit of the entire country.

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