ISRAELI SOCIETY is facing a significant challenge with the growth of its ultra-Orthodox community, which now numbers some 800,000, or about 10 percent of the population.The challenge lies in the ideology of the haredim: The community does not provide its children with a general or higher education; they are against serving in the military; and they do not join the workforce.
This has generated not only devastating poverty, but also has kept the community isolated from the rest of Israel, a position that breeds extremism on matters of religion and state.The ultra-Orthodox have a birthrate more than double that of the rest of Israel. As they become an even higher percentage of the population, their lack of general education and ability to enter the workforce will inevitably lead to a significant economic challenge for the country, and their refusal to serve in the IDF and increased isolation will cause even greater polarization between their population and the rest of Israeli society.The 19th Knesset (2013-2015) passed numerous laws and reforms to address some of these concerns. I was privileged to serve in that Knesset as a member of the Yesh Atid party, headed by MK Yair Lapid, which led the way on these issues.We passed a law to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox men serving in the IDF and national service; passed legislation requiring a higher percentage of the ultra-Orthodox community to study general studies in their schools; reduced stipends that had made it convenient for young men to simply remain in rabbinic seminaries and not join the ranks of the employed; and we focused budgets on job-training initiatives for uneducated and unemployed ultra-Orthodox males. Those changes and others were possible because the government was formed without the haredi parties as coalition partners. While their political leadership bemoaned the reforms enacted by the government ‒ which they coined “evil decrees” ‒ there was quiet but significant support for many, if not all, of these changes by many individuals within the haredi community who saw these steps as vital progress for their community.One rabbi, who made me promise never to reveal his name, even told me to “keep going, because you are saving us from ourselves.”Then the government collapsed and the 19th Knesset was disbanded.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the ensuing election, and reached out first to offer the ultra-Orthodox parties and their 13 mandates to be his coalition partners. The prime minister agreed to every one of their demands, and within a year the government undid all that was achieved in the previous term: They restored all the stipends for “rabbinic students,” thereby making it worthwhile for young men to remain in seminaries instead of joining the workforce, even if they had no desire or were not capable of studying day and night; they managed to find a way ‒ after significant consultation with government attorneys ‒ to change the draft legislation for haredi men, essentially rendering the previous law toothless and meaningless; and they reversed the law requiring general studies (math and English) in all government-funded schools.In addition, the new government took further regressive steps affecting religion and state: not implementing the previous coalition’s agreement to provide space at the Western Wall for non-Orthodox streams to hold egalitarian services and prohibiting non-Orthodox streams from using state-funded ritual baths for conversions.At first glance, the moves made by the current government appear to be catastrophic for Israel ‒ young ultra-Orthodox males not integrating into the IDF and the workforce, living off government handouts and remaining in their isolated communities breeding extremism would seem to be a recipe for serious economic and societal fights in the years ahead.However, while Israel has taken steps backward in official government policy, in actuality, the previous government’s initiatives have had a game-changing impact on the ultra-Orthodox world ‒ changes that cannot be undone.For example, legislation on the draft included a clause that fundamentally impacted haredi unemployment. Until the passing of this law, it was forbidden for employers to hire ultra-Orthodox males who had not served in the IDF until they were almost 30 years old. As a result, tens of thousands remained in rabbinic seminaries and lived off government stipends, despite having growing and needy families and having no desire to continue studying. They had no other option ‒ since they would not, on ideological grounds, serve in the army, they could not legally work.But the legislation changed that policy, allowing ultra-Orthodox men to immediately leave their rabbinic seminaries and join the labor market, and the budgets allocated to support these young men learning a trade helped thousands enter the workforce. The impact was nothing short of historic.The experience of earning a decent living and supporting their families with dignity – something common in America, where all haredim learn general studies and all have tools for employment ‒ was brand new for that 20-something age group, and news of it spread quickly in the haredi community.The effect was electric. I served as head of the Knesset taskforce to help the ultra-Orthodox enter the workforce, and I will never forget the moment a young man whom we helped land a job came to thank me for our assistance.“It was remarkable,” he said. “I went to work for a month, and at the end of the month a huge amount of money was sent directly to my bank account.” He no doubt shared this excitement with his friends.The revolutionary floodgates have opened within the community.Despite the efforts of the current government to keep the young men in the seminaries, the employment rate for ultra-Orthodox males has risen to above 50% for the first time in decades.Despite the rolling back of the draft legislation, a record 3,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers are set to enlist in the IDF this year, and the army is introducing a new ultra-Orthodox unit in the paratrooper division.Despite the government ceasing its requirement for general studies in state funded schools, thousands of parents are seeking programs to teach their children English outside the school setting.And a record number of ultra-Orthodox students are enrolled in Israel’s universities ‒ more than 10,000! It is important to note that when these young men go to work, the impact is not limited to economics.For many ultra-Orthodox Israelis, this is the first time they are meeting secular Israelis ‒ and vice versa – and myths and stigmas have come crashing down. The haredim have come to learn that, while secular Israelis live a very different lifestyle than theirs, they can be wonderful, value-centered people and are not the “devil” they have been taught regarding secular Israel. And secular Israelis have come to learn that the ultra-Orthodox are not the extremist and self-centered people they have seen in the media or even in the Knesset, but rather nice, personable and giving.This interface not only generates unity, but will also have a fundamental impact on issues of religion and state. As the haredi community integrates into Israeli society while, of course, maintaining its own standards of religious practice, they will become more moderate and embracing with regards to religious issues for the broader state.One anecdote captures the ultimate reason why, despite the government’s new policies, the ultra-Orthodox community will continue to move forward, and over the coming generations will fully integrate into Israeli society.A CEO of a phone company told me that his company’s top store for cell phone sales per capita within a few kilometer radius of the store is their branch in Mea She’arim – the Jerusalem neighborhood that is home to the most extreme element in the ultra-Orthodox community.When I challenged him, based on my understanding that this is a very poor community, he explained, “Every person must purchase a ‘kosher phone’ – which is simply a telephone with a stamp of approval from the rabbis with no Internet access or text capability.This is the phone they use in public. But everyone also purchases a smart phone that they keep in their pocket, in a drawer or under a mattress. Everyone is buying two phones!” Despite the efforts of the rabbis and the political leadership to keep this community isolated and removed from modern society, that world is coming to them. They see what is out there, and seek opportunities to take part in it. And as long as they know that they can be Talmudic scholars and fervently religious while also supporting their families with dignity and pursuing their personal dreams, they will do so.Sadly, this government continues to cave in to the demands of the haredi political parties with policies that isolate their communities and are extreme in matters of religion and state.But, the reality on the ground proves that while these efforts may set back progress temporarily, the ultra-Orthodox street will continue on its path toward integration and moderation. Dov Lipman is director of Public Diplomacy in the vice chairman's office of the World Zionist Organization. He previously served as an MK for the Yesh Atid party in the 19th Knesset.