Post-protest proposals

Experts in different fields weigh in on the impact of the Trajtenberg Report in Jerusalem.

Trajtenberg and Netanyahu  521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Trajtenberg and Netanyahu 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Trajtenberg Report, which was approved by the government last week, has been presented by its author as the most serious attempt ever made to solve the problems of the middle class and to reduce the gaps between the rich and those of modest means.
Between the disappointment of Daphni Leef (“he made a fool of us,” she told a Hebrew newspaper) and the no-less-harsh opposition by some political parties – notably Shas – it is worthwhile to examine the details of the report. Three items on its list of issues are of immediate consequence for Jerusalem – affordable housing and public housing (not the same at all), the early childhood education system and its cost, and haredi men in the employment market.
Dr. Maya Choshen of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies says that with Jerusalem’s large number of children – 60,000 under the age of 18 at the end of 2010 – the report’s proposals regarding early childhood education support will have a large impact on Jerusalem’s young families – whereas the recommendation to create public daycare centers for children aged zero to three and free preschool for children aged three and four will save considerable sums currently going toward private nannies or day-care centers.
As for employment for haredim, the report recommends that the state subsidize academic or vocational training for two-thirds of the men. But Choshen believes that in Jerusalem, this will have little impact as long as the city can’t offer enough jobs. According to Choshen, there is a serious risk that hundreds or thousands of haredi men will find out, at the end of professional training or academic studies, that they still have to leave the city to find employment.
“Large companies, which can employ candidates without experience, can be found almost only in the Center of the country, not so much in Jerusalem, and that will have to change,” she explains.
Regarding the protest that spawned the report, Prof. Ya’acov Bar-Siman Tov, the head of the JIIS, says that while he considers this the most impressive and perhaps the most important event in the country’s history, he nonetheless feels some disappointment.
“This protest didn’t come from the most underprivileged citizens, but from the heart of the middle class, the backbone of society,” he notes. But on the way, he adds, the protest leaders wanted so much to preserve the consensus around them that they focused only on social justice and laid aside the issue of peace, “because they felt that the peace issue divided the protesters, and that’s a pity.”
According to Bar-Siman Tov, “we should all bear in mind that without a peace process, there can’t be any social justice here; it goes together.”
To gauge the impact the report, if implemented, will have in the capital, In Jerusalem has spoken to experts representing the topics addressed.
Three years ago, Amit Poni and Dudu Uzieli, both in their late 20s, created Meluna, an organization that made extensive use of gimmicks such as building a large kennel in the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall to draw the municipality’s attention to the lack of affordable housing for the young generation.
“Affordable housing [in] Jerusalem [has] become an oxymoron,” said Uzieli during one of the gatherings at the city’s Menorah Park tent protest on King George Avenue.
Today, Uzieli is deputy mayor and chairman of the planning and construction committee Kobi Kahlon’s closest assistant, and Poni is chief coordinator of the affordable housing projects at the Jerusalem Development Authority. Both say that as far as the municipality and the JDA are concerned, many of Manuel Trajtenberg’s proposals have been on the table for many years regarding Jerusalem, but recommendations such as subsidizing land for contractors who will build low-cost rental properties need specific government legislation in order to be implemented.
According to the measures proposed by the Trajtenberg Report, the state, through the Construction and Housing Ministry, will require that contractors offer low-cost apartments in exchange for a substantial reduction in the price of the land tenders.
“Until now, the criteria of the ministry were [that these be] exclusively [for] large families,” says city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz). “But we all know that large families mean first and foremost haredi families, and what about the rest?” The change proposed by Trajtenberg is that the apartments may now be purchased by young families and couples, and they should be modest, up to three or four rooms.
Poni says that in this particular case, “the state can simply decide to change the criteria. The land belongs to the state anyway; as soon as the government rules that it is open to young couples and small families also, it’s done.
After all, there is no reason this solution should be offered only on the basis of the number of children, and not, let’s say, to those who work and support themselves and to those who help the country [through army and civilian service], whatever number of children they have – but that’s the government’s decision.”
Deputy Mayor Eli Simhayoff (Shas) says he has no objection to broadening the conditions for affordable housing.
“Thousands of haredi young couples get married each year – where would they live? Why should they have to leave the city?” he asks. “There haven’t been any new construction projects for haredim for years here, so affordable housing should be accessible to all, including young haredim who wish to remain in Jerusalem and purchase a low-cost home, and that’s exactly what Trajtenberg enables in his report.”
According to Simhayoff, Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias has already agreed to go in this direction and recently proposed a new arrangement, with 20% haredim (large families) and 20% non-haredi young couples and the rest on the free market in each new construction project planned.
Regarding rental prices, Poni says the report enables higher taxes on homes owned by foreigners, which remain empty for most of the year.
“That is a direct result of the protest movement, because this is something we have asked time and again, and nothing moved until this report mentioned it,” he says. “If this recommendation is implemented, hundreds – at least – of apartments will be released to the renting market, helping to lower rents.”
“Trajtenberg also recommends laws to regulate the rental market,” says Poni, adding that “we already have one such pilot project in Jerusalem.”
“The Peretz Bonei Hanegev construction company won a tender for the building of a 22-story building on subsidized land that will make small apartments available to rent for a minimum period of seven years.”
If successful, Poni says, other such projects will follow, with even longer minimum rental periods.
If this were to happen, it could offer a solution for those who will never be able to purchase an apartment, no matter how low prices go.
“We have a waiting list of over 1,000 families and individuals entitled to public housing,” says Bracha Arguani, president of the Association for the Rights for Housing.
“The state told these people that they were eligible for public housing, yet they are living with their parents and relatives, in harsh conditions, and many of them are still in tents in the parks of Jerusalem. Some who tried to rent got in trouble with banks and landlords, and many of them were thrown out onto the streets – Trajtenberg doesn’t offer them any real, decent solution.”
On this issue, the Trajtenberg Report indeed appears much less promising. The report proposes the state stop buying or constructing public housing, and instead approve higher rent support in the free market.
“If we were a sane country, I would have agreed with him,” says Margalit, who is on the board of directors of the Prazot public-housing company. “But the problem is that there is no regulation of rental prices; some landlords act like mafiosi and extort unbearable rents from these poor people. They also raise rents whenever they want, so this is not a serious solution. The only real solution is for the state to take responsibility, to sell land at reduced prices to contractors who will agree to build small and modest homes, which will be purchased through mortgages that will not exceed a third of these people’s income.”
For Idan Pink, a young, prominent member of the protest movement in Jerusalem, the main problem with the report lies in the fact that it offers specific solutions to specific problems without taking into account the overall situation.
“Not all the landlords are bad people. They raise prices because they have to pay high mortgages, or because life is so expensive while salaries are so low that they just need that money to live decently. Trajtenberg doesn’t make any linkage between cause and effect, he just says ‘give more for rent support to these needy people.’ We all know what it means – owners will immediately raise the rent and we’ll be back to square one. What we need is to lower the cost of living.”
Jerusalem city council member Rachel Azaria says that the report’s proposals for early childhood are close to perfect.
In the report, Trajtenberg writes that for the ages of three and four, when there is no free education (kindergarten starts at the age of five) the local councils should take it upon themselves to provide solutions, according to the socio-economic situation of each family and the general economic status of the city itself. Currently, the Education Ministry’s nursery schools cost NIS 800 a month until 2 p.m. Parents who need to leave their children in day care longer (until 4 p.m.), can do so for an additional sum of up to NIS 900 in Jerusalem, and up to NIS 1,200 in other cities.
Now that the Trajtenberg Report has been approved by the government, nursery school will be free and the afternoon programs will be priced according to the city’s economic status.
But Azaria says that there is even more good news regarding day-care centers for children aged zero to three.
“Trajtenberg shifts the responsibility for the day-care centers for early childhood from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry to the Education Ministry. I am convinced that this a first step in the right direction, to include this age group in the education system, and eventually to include them in the country’s free education system.”
Meanwhile, Trajtenberg has pointed out the fact that there are not enough public day-care centers across the country to take care of all children. In Jerusalem, Azaria says that even without exact figures on how many children attend some form of day care, “we all know that the number of children in Jerusalem is much higher than in the rest of the country, except perhaps for among the Beduin population.”
The Trajtenberg Report calls for the construction, within two years, of thousands of day-care centers in addition to the existing 90,000 (the optimum number of public day care centers is 220,000, says Azaria). The cost for a nine-hour day will remain at around NIS 1,800 but discounts will be given according to the family’s economic situation.
“This will obviously bring private frameworks back down to a more normal cost [as well],” adds Azaria.
Another improvement proposed in the report is to allocate two tax deduction points per child to fathers, in addition to the one mothers already receive.
The only thing that remains, in terms of Jerusalem, is convincing the Finance Ministry to reduce the waiting period before the plan is implemented in the city. This waiting period results from the fact that the report’s recommendations are to be rolled out in stages according to the socio-economic level of each local or regional council, with the poorest areas getting the benefits first. Jerusalem is in the fourth tier of 10 – the first, mostly Beduin villages, being the lowest.
“If we manage to hurry up the implementation, Jerusalem’s young parents will begin to enjoy the benefits of this program by next year,” concludes Azaria.
About 27% of Israel’s haredim live in Jerusalem. Therefore, any major change here will affect the rest of the country to a large extent.
The major issue here is lack of employment, particularly among haredi men. According to the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, only 36% of haredi men work. The Trajtenberg Report mentions the urgent need to give this sector of the population with the necessary tools – including significant government support – to encourage them to go to work, acknowledging that a about one-third will remain in yeshivot despite their poverty. As for the rest, Trajtenberg proposes a package deal of professional training accompanied by a sustainable allowance financed by the state and philanthropists.
On the ground, such projects already exist and a few thousand haredim are studying or already working. Dr. Dan Kaufmann of the JIIS, which has conducted extensive research on the subject, says that we haven’t yet reached a point of no return but the numbers of haredim joining these programs are growing all the time. Through the ministry and through special projects financed by organizations like the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), haredim who wish to enter the employment market can get training in various professions, including a stipend and help getting a job.
“The goal is to find a job in a field that offers more employment opportunities, whether it is train or bus drivers, in graphics or at the lowest levels of the hi-tech professions. Even when those who go for academic studies choose subjects with the best chances of employment – lawyers, business managers and accountants. Very few of them, so far, will go for pure academic studies in fields that do not provide immediate employment. Basically, there is no change in the concept that a ‘pure and true education’ is in Torah learning, and whatever else they study is only to make a living,” explains Kaufmann. There are two problems with the education proposals for haredim in the report, he adds, one being the relatively low level of the colleges that offer separate tracks for haredi students compared to the universities, and the second is the intense competition on the market in these particular fields.
“On top of this, most Israeli employers still hesitate to employ haredim out of prejudice. So a haredi graduate in law or business management will realize that he has to overcome a lot of obstacles.
Clearly, serious government involvement is required here, like [the implementation of] a haredi university, but it is not clear how far the Trajtenberg recommendations aim at this.”
Asaf Malchi is the coordinator of haredim at the Authority for Research and Economy team at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. His service works in close cooperation with Kaufmann’s team at the JIIS and he agrees that the lack of academic studies in the haredi colleges is a serious obstacle. Malchi says that due to the phenomenal population growth in haredi society, typical positions in haredi society like those in education and the rabbinate were no longer sufficient and thus, as of the mid-Nineties, the trend for professional training for jobs outside of the community began.
“Since 2005-2006 we see a clear tendency to reach academic education, though the numbers are still very low. Currently, there are about 6,500 students, including women. We estimate the number of haredi men in the academic stream to be at about 5 percent, which is very low [based on the haredi students association, which has 6,300 students registered, with 60% women and 40% men] compared with 65,000 haredi men who study Torah full-time,” says Malchi.
Jerusalem will be the first city in the country to offer realistic solutions to haredi residents who want to learn a trade, he explains.
“The municipality and the JDC have already created a ‘one-stop center’ for registration, preparation and assignment of haredim to training and employment. It is a very efficient but very expensive project, because let’s not forget, we’re talking about men aged 27 to 28, with at least three to four children to feed; they won’t do it without stipends and allowances. For us it is clear. If the Treasury won’t release the necessary funding, it won’t work, period. The state has to decide if we want to see haredim working or not, and Jerusalem will be the major laboratory of this.”
Shmuel-Chaim Poppenheim, a Toldot Aharon hassid who works at the JDC, is very cautious to clarify that under no circumstances will he persuade a haredi to leave yeshiva.
“But if somebody has decided to stop his studying and to work, we are here to help him from scratch, like learning English, basics in mathematics or in going to work on a steady basis whatever is required to start professional training. Once that person has chosen a path, we provide support, expert consultation and help to obtain stipends and allowances from philanthropic funds – we do not collaborate with the Zionist state, we just help people to improve their conditions of living.”
Trajtenberg’s recommendations fit in with what Poppenheim is promoting – that haredim who leave yeshiva need to get support in order to enter the employment market, whether this support comes from the state (as the Trajtenberg Report suggests) or through philanthropy and non-governmental organizations like the JDC.
As strange as it may sound, the Trajtenberg Report doesn’t pay any specific attention to the Arab population. The situation of east Jerusalem’s Arabs is even more difficult, since they are not exactly Israeli citizens (they cannot vote for the Knesset, for example) but they have a special residential status allowing them to vote for the city council. They do receive social benefits, such as National Insurance allowances for the unemployed, children and the elderly.
Activists from the various protest movements that organized the tent protest in Jerusalem say that there was no participation of Arab residents. Even in the camp created and inhabited by single mothers and families without housing solutions, there were no a representative of the Arab residents of east Jerusalem. Michael Shalev, one of the first activists at the protest, says that only once did two young men from east Jerusalem join the open discussions that were held daily.
“The two came here because we had a debate on workers’ rights that evening, and since they were employed by a contractor – meaning with no or very few rights – they felt involved. As for the protest itself,” adds Shalev, “they respected it, but I was told by some sources in Silwan that the period was particularly bad for them; towards September most of the Arab residents were more concerned about their political protest than the social issues.”