The haves and the have-nots

Arye Deri says the Sephardim are discriminated against the most, but is his solution the correct one?

Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Arye Deri 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Arye Deri 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
With election day rapidly approaching and party political campaigns swinging into high gear, party leaders are eager to get out their messages and set out their stalls, and Shas triumvirate leader Arye Deri is no exception.
His offices in Jerusalem’s Har Hotzvim business park are a hive of activity with young activists swarming in and out, while Deri himself fields a steady stream of media interviews and requests.
The pressure of the campaign is clearly telling. Eager to get on-message and talk about the issues the party is focusing on, the Shas leader is anxious to avoid discussion of the political rumors and speculation that so often swirl around the party and his offices in particular.
What he is comfortable talking about is the “two flags” which Shas is flying for the election campaign: the “weakest levels” of society, and the Jewish identity of the state.
Warming to his task, Deri averred that the divide between rich and poor in the country is unacceptable.
“The gaps in Israel between the upper and lower percentiles are among the highest in the world,” Deri claimed.
“We cannot reconcile ourselves to this situation,” he continued, calling the problem “a strategic threat” to the viability of Israeli society.
“The USSR didn’t collapse because of security threats and the Egyptian regime didn’t fall because the army wasn’t strong enough. They fell apart because their societies failed,” he said.
But Deri also insists that it is Sephardim who are suffering the most from the disparate levels of income in Israel.
Shas’s focus on this agenda item has markedly increased during the party’s electoral campaign. In December, Deri dropped the sectarian bomb onto the election campaign by accusing Likud Beytenu of representing “Whites and Russians.” Although he later apologized, Deri has continued to highlight what he describes as a disproportionate lack of opportunity for Sephardim.
“I said it perhaps too sharply, but there are two states: those who have and those who don’t have. Those who go without includes everyone, Sephardim, haredim, Arabs, Russians, Ethiopians and so on, but the majority of people in development towns and in the distressed socio-economic strata are Sephardim.”
SO WHAT are the solutions, according to Deri? In the short term it would seem that Shas’s answer is to focus on classic social welfare policies, and the party says that it proudly flies the “social flag,” although Deri noted that improving opportunities in education is the only long-term solution.
But he is nevertheless eager to focus on Shas’s reputation as a party that stands up for the poor, in contrast, he says, to those waving the flag for the middle class, which has been the focus of social protests over the past 18 months.
Affirmative action for Sephardim is also something Deri says he will promote as a central tool for improving their lot.
“We have to raise them up, we have to help them more because they are not able to help themselves,” he says passionately. “It’s not a solution to say, ‘well, it’s a free market for everyone’; we need to help them and we need to ensure that their kids have a more equal opportunity since every year that goes past is another generation that is lost.”
And pointing to expected budget cuts in the coming year, Deri said he wants to protect lower-income families from budget cuts, such as reductions in child benefits, increases in VAT and other cutbacks in government spending which will affect the bottom line for the poor.
“Yes, we’re talking about short-term solutions at the moment, but there is no other alternative in the immediate term,” he claims.
But in the long term, Deri concedes that education is the only path forward.
“Education is the long-term solution and this is the real revolution, but it will take time, and in order to give them the opportunity to reach this they need bread to eat, and when their parents can’t support them today and every year tens of thousands of children are entering the cycle of poverty it is a very dangerous situation.”
But education for Shas’s core voters, those in the haredi sector, is encumbered with significant problems.
Although elementary schools teach the state core curriculum subjects, haredi boys aged 13 and upwards in haredi high schools, known as yeshivot ketanot, receive no secular education whatsoever.
And institutions such as the Taub Center for Social Policy Research in Israel have specifically stressed the correlation between unemployment and low levels of education.
But Deri is reluctant to admit that the lack of core curriculum studies in high schools is a hindrance to future entry into a professional career, and seems equally reluctant to take on the rabbis of the haredi sector in order to push for the core curriculum to be integrated into haredi high school education.
“We do not argue with the rabbis.
How will it help us to argue? Our rabbis are concerned that if we introduce secular studies into the yeshivot this will destroy the [Torah] education of the children,” Deri says.
“In the end there won’t be any improvement at all,” he argues, were the party to insist on such a radical shake-up to the haredi education system, claiming that the backlash from conservative elements in the society would roll back progress made thus far.
Instead Deri points to the increasing number of haredi students in academic colleges and studying for degrees in law, accountancy and similar professions, who complete remedial courses in basic education at these institutes before beginning the professional qualification course.
There are currently approximately 7,000 haredi students in such higher education institutes, and the numbers are on the rise.
Prof. Dan Ben-David, the executive director of the Taub Center, is however extremely skeptical about the capacity of such programs to satisfy the requirements of the Israeli economy, and adds that the numbers of haredim enrolling are also inadequate.
“This model is not sustainable or workable and is far from being sufficient,” he observes. “There are perhaps a few star students at the top of this society who can make the switch from religious to secular education, but that’s it. There’s a reason all modern societies insist on education from grades 1 to 12.”
He also notes that employment rates for haredi men aged 35 to 54 are identical to rates of employment of other Jewish men with only four years of education.
“The numbers [of haredim entering higher education] are a drop in the bucket, the quantity needed is much higher and the level of the education provided at these colleges is also insufficient.”
Ben-David also questioned the capacity of mainstream universities and colleges to cope with the demands of haredi society for gender-separate classes.
“If you deprive children of education you can’t complain that they’re poor,” he says.
Still, Deri argues that pushing for more drastic change would be counter-productive.
“If you go for too much, you end up with nothing,” he says, citing a talmudic aphorism.
“We now have haredi lawyers who passed the bar exam just like someone who got their degree from the Hebrew University, only he studied in Michlelet Ono [an academic college with a haredi track], but they’re the same exams, and the results are the same and the lawyer’s certificate is the same certificate.
“We can open up a cultural war and be coercive but the Torah world, the yeshivot and the rabbis will fight with all their strength and sacrifice themselves against this. I am a disciple of ‘slowly, slowly’ when making changes, but the changes can already be seen and they are increasing every year.”
Turning to what will be one of the central battles of the next Knesset, Deri also insists on the importance of compromise and agreement when discussing enlistment of haredim into the army.
He picks up on the oft-heard refrain of haredi political leaders on the topic, saying that “those who are not learning,” in reference to full-time haredi yeshiva students, must enlist in national service programs, although the definition is not clearly spelled out.
Deri also points to increasing numbers of haredi men in the IDF tracks designed for ultra-Orthodox recruits, as well as the civilian service program for haredi men which acts as an an alternative for military service.
But he also emphasizes Shas’s adherence to the importance of Torah study and values, and says that the party will continue to support the “right” of anyone who is fully committed to his religious studies to continue studying in yeshiva.
“Those who want to learn must be enabled to learn,” Deri declares.
Ultimately, Deri – who, as he himself points out, has returned to the political fold after 13 years in the wilderness – sees change in haredi society, be it in the field of education or army service, as happening slowly and gradually, and with the least conflict with the rabbis and conservative elements of the society.
Whether such a model for incremental societal change is feasible or effective remains to be seen, but the greatest political test for this program will certainly come on election day itself.
Will Shas’s core Sephardi haredi voters buy into Deri’s program and boost the party’s current Knesset representation, or are they now looking for new horizons, both political and societal?
The results on January 22 will tell all.