It is the Israeli establishment that should be held responsible for the low rates of participation in the labor force within the haredi sector, which has the desire to work but needs state intervention to realize its work potential.That was the gist of a Monday conference titled “Employment in the Haredi Sector – Trends and Future Directions,” initiated by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry.“We must blame ourselves, first and foremost, for not approaching the haredim as a target group that can be brought into the workforce, while taking into account its cultural, religious and historic characteristics,” Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in his opening remarks to ministry and municipal representatives, researchers, activists, and haredim involved in promoting employment.“There is no contradiction between being haredi and serving the State of Israel [in the IDF] or earning a living with dignity,” he said. “Ministries are willing to invest funds and effort to help the activities of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, which is providing incentives to employers who take haredim.” According to ministry data, some 37 percent of haredi men and 49% of haredi women participate in the Israeli workforce.Ben-Eliezer further noted the growing numbers of haredim who worked, and cited positive feedback from bosses who employed haredim.“This is one of the most important and sensitive sectors in the public,” Ben-Eliezer said. “Being part of the workforce is not only a contribution to the state, economy and society, but primarily shattering the existent culture of not working.” Last month, Ben-Eliezer presented Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with his ministry’s program to encourage haredi employment, which will focus on four facets of helping promote haredi workforce participation, and strive to set a long-term change in motion within that sector. Ben-Eliezer also announced the appointment of a ministerial head of staff for haredi employment, Amihai Katz.“This is an important social challenge for workplaces, which should be open-minded about taking different kinds of people into their midst,” Ben- Eliezer said, and urged the ultra-Orthodox to “keep on being haredim, but work, too.” Benny Pfefferman, the ministry’s head of research and economics and moderator of the event, stressed that while the workforce participation among haredim was lower today than it was 30 years ago, the trend of the past 10 years was a constant rise in employed haredim.Pfefferman even went so far as to predict that within 15 years, the rates of employment among haredim would be similar to those of the general public.He stressed that the major challenge facing his ministry and society in this issue was creating workplaces compatible with the haredi lifestyle and sensitivities.“This is a populace that wants to work and can work,” he said.MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), head of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, delivered a provocative address, praising the haredi educational system, which he determined was superior to the secular education system.He lauded the diligence, loyalty, intelligence and dedication of haredim as employees, who don’t always get the chance to work despite their desire to do so. “The broad haredi public,” Gafni said, setting aside the haredim who wished to and were capable of dedicating themselves to a life of Torah study, “wants to work. It is the fixated, narrow-minded state that won’t let them, even if there are sincere forces [that want to promote haredi employment].” Gafni blamed the state’s mechanisms of setting thresholds for certain positions, such as high school matriculation and university degrees, instead of reworking the conditions to pave the way for haredim who have different diplomas and training.“The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry is full of good intentions, but weighed down by bureaucracy, which must be overcome in order to promote the economic goal of integrating haredim into the workforce,” he said.Gafni also claimed there were two additional obstacles to the haredim’s entrance to the labor force – the fact that there was no affirmative action for them, and the “incitement” to which employers are exposed by the media, which, he said, create a negative image of haredim.“When a haredi wants to get a job, he’s last in line – first there are immigrants, then Arabs, then people with disabilities, and finally the haredi, whom the media portrays as a flag-burner who is constantly gone to take care of new babies,” he said.The challenges and sensitivities involved in growing efforts to help the haredi populace integrate into the workforce were highlighted in two loud walkouts by haredim during a Monday lecture by Prof. Kimmy Caplan. Caplan read aloud a parody mocking contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy to illustrate some of the prevalent prejudices against haredim in Israeli society, and spoke of the inner discourse taking place within the haredi sector regarding birth control.“This attitude is a reflection of the problems we are facing,” said Avraham Schwarz, the haredi former directorgeneral of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, who had angrily left the auditorium when Caplan spoke of family planning.“We came here to be partners to this ministry that took the ‘hot potato’ of haredi employment for professional, egalitarian and positive handling. It is employment, or lack thereof, that is keeping haredi mayors, such as Bnei Brak’s Ya’acov Asher, awake at night,” he said.