Corridors of Power: (Non)working solutions

Why has the municipality rejected a proposal to create a professional training center for haredim?

Sea of haredi men 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Sea of haredi men 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
City council members sometimes surprise their constituencies (not to mention this reporter) – either by acting courageously or, alas, by supporting decisions that do not match their voters’ wishes.
Obviously politics and the rules of the democratic game sometimes require embarrassing decisions and votes. But this time, there appeared to be no hidden rules or silent agreements behind the strange decision by some members of the Finance Committee to vote against a project that logically should have won the widest support and approval.
Here is the story of that decision, along with what seems to be a new – and related – source of tension on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) benches at the city council.
One of the major claims against haredi society focuses on the small number of them who work. Even if we disregard the sometimes close-to-anti-Semitic remarks and headlines in some segments of the secular press, there is no doubt that the tendencies not to work and not to serve in the army are the two major sources of animosity against the haredi community. Despite the growing numbers of young haredim who leave their yeshivot, or drop to a half-day arrangement, in order to get the necessary training or academic education, the general atmosphere is still one of anger and criticism toward them. Given that Jerusalem has a larger haredi population than other areas of the country, this issue carries even greater significance in the capital.
As such, one would expect any project or attempt to promote professional training or higher secular education for young haredim in the city to be welcomed and encouraged, especially by those who criticize the current situation. Well, logically it should, but such logic seems not to have penetrated Safra Square. How else can we understand the Finance Committee members’ decision last week to vote against such a project? Besides the fact that they seem to be shooting themselves in the foot, it is difficult to see why secular council members would reject a joint government-municipality project aimed at opening the first of eight professional training centers for young haredi residents.
Officially the proposal was rejected because it was brought to the committee members at the last minute, and it was not part of the session’s agenda. This is true, but the reasons behind the last-minute move were clear and known to all the participants in the meeting.
While the project itself has been approved by the government and budgeted, it has not yet gone before the Knesset Finance Committee, since this government hasn’t yet presented a budget for 2013.
“The money is there, waiting for us to use it for such an important purpose,” said a source at the city council committee, who didn’t try to hide his frustration.
BUT THERE’S more to this story. Among those who refused even to discuss the proposal were two secular city council members: Elisha Peleg (Likud) and Deputy Mayor Pepe Allalu (Meretz) – two of the most outspoken proponents of haredim joining the job market.
The explanations should not be disregarded – the councillors were not prepared for the proposal, and didn’t have an opportunity to learn the details, as the rules require them to do. The failure of the committee staff to at least include it in the session’s agenda was a big mistake. Still, the opportunity to do something to encourage young haredim who are ready to leave the yeshivot and undergo training so they can work and support their families is too important an issue to leave buried under bureaucratic considerations.
Among the members of United Torah Judaism, whose representative was also strongly opposed to discussing the project, there is some tension at present.
A recent decision by the Tov (Hebrew for “good”) movement – formed by haredim who promote academic study and joining the workforce – to run for the next council elections in November 2013 may seriously shake the hegemony of the traditional base of the haredi list (made up of the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael). Some unofficial surveys the two sides held recently show that if the Tov movement runs, it will take at least two seats from UTJ.
There are no indications whatsoever that the decision the haredi Finance Committee members made to reject the training center project has anything to do with Tov’s plans, but it is hard to believe that the challenge the movement represents was not present somewhere – at least in the councillors’ minds – in the committee’s room.