Interesting Times: Why size matters

If haredim were a small, marginal minority we could let them retreat to their own neighborhoods.

Haredi family 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi family 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
This town ain’t big enough for the two of us. The cliché from the mythic Old West goes back so far into the misty reaches of popular culture that there’s no consensus on who coined it. Certainly any threat value it aroused was long gone by the time Yosemite Sam issued it to Bugs Bunny some 60 years ago.
But in Beit Shemesh it goes to the heart of the controversy that was sparked by a haredi man spitting on little girl for dressing in a manner that he considered immodest and inflamed further when another called a woman a whore for refusing to move to the back of the bus. It’s not just the buses, the sidewalks or even the town that aren’t big enough for the haredim simultaneously with all the rest; in the final analysis, it’s the entire country. It’s not a battle of one individual’s right versus another’s or the right of a tiny community to live its values apart from the rest. Rather, it’s a turf battle over common public space and, by virtue of that, over the face of society.
The fact is that the kind of sex segregation that is now being presented as a timeless Torah value didn’t exist a decade or two ago. But once set into motion it reinforces itself, creating ever higher barriers between men and women and between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else, raising the bar for the next new standard of modesty and separation. The fact that these tightening strictures are instigated by the most extreme members of the haredi world is irrelevant. Much like his Muslim counterpart in the Egyptian countryside or in the slums of Baghdad, the average haredi on the street may not like extremists or their violence and boorishness and wouldn’t count himself as one of them. But given the choice between the secularists (who are the “real enemy”) and the more zealous of his co-religionists (who are after all well-intentioned), there’s no doubt on which side he will come down.
If our haredim were small minorities pursuing their way of life at the margins of a much bigger society, like the Amish in America, or the Old Believers in Russia or, for that matter, the hassidim of Brooklyn, we could let them retreat to their own neighborhoods and schools and public transportation. But the haredim are not marginal here.
Depending on who is estimating, the ultra-Orthodox now make up somewhere between 7 and 12 percent of the population. They account for 25% of first-grade enrollments, compared with about 6% some 20 years ago. If their population continues growing at current rates, the National Economics Council estimated in a 2009 report that their share of the working age population will grow from 6% to 10% in 2020 and 17% by 2030. But, of course, they don’t work much. The Bank of Israel estimated in 2007 that the labor force participation rate for haredi men is 25%, versus 67% for all other Jewish males (between women it’s a narrower 45% to 62%), a rate that is so low as to fundamentally detract from Israel’s economic performance. As the haredi population grows, its failure to contribute to the economy is becoming an intolerable weight.
WILLINGLY OR not, haredim are slowly entering the workforce – and, on a smaller scale, the army – but it’s not nearly enough.
Haredi integration is often presented as a matter of ensuring they learn a smattering of unholy subjects like math and English, put in a token effort at military service and then get a job. But it’s not that simple. Israel’s economy isn’t kind to people without the education and skills demanded by the most knowledge-intensive industries. The unemployment rate for them is high and the pay is very low. The country’s schools are doing a poor job of transmitting those skills to the next generation, but haredi schools aren’t doing the job at all. Among their secondary schools, the proportion teaching core subjects such as mathematics and English is below 50%. An Israeli Arab is more likely to be taught Hebrew at a high school level than his Haredi counterpart (67% versus 42%) and is far more likely to learn science.
It’s naive to assume, as many apologists for the haredi community do, that facility with a page of Gemara is readily transferable to the job market. But the challenge goes deeper than formal education. The intellectual capital of a knowledge economy isn’t the sum total of math and science skills but an attitude and approach to life and an openness to new ideas and to people. It also means working with women, regardless of how they are dressed.
The idea of, say, employing hundreds of haredi women to work apart from the rest of the world in a call center is appealing and it is being done here and there, but it is not going to be applicable over large portions of the job market. Segregation won’t work any better in the workplace than it does on buses or sidewalks.
Which is why this town of Israel ain’t big enough for the two of us. No one has to leave, but one of us has to change. We can hope that a natural evolution of more and more contact with the army, the world of work and secular education will have the effect of moderating or, ideally, reversing the extremism that has manifested itself in Beit Shemesh. But first things first: The three Rs and a big J for a job.