Opening Lines: Will work for prayer

The next big boost for the economy could come in the form of a new plan to get haredi men into the workforce at a younger age.

young haredis studying 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
young haredis studying 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the 1990s, the economy received a significant boost from the vast Russian aliya which flooded the country with hundreds of thousands of new immigrants bringing with them skills and new markets. In the first decade of the 21st century, it was the local hitech industry that drove the economy onward and upward. Now, at the start of the second decade, there are many who believe that the next big boost could come from the inclusion of the haredi and Arab sectors into the workforce.
With the economy already doing well by most standards, an injection of hundreds of thousands of new workers and a reduction in the amount of government spending on their welfare could boost the economy to even greater heights. The flipside of that coin is that if these sectors aren’t included, and soon, the economy will stagnate and regress.
Well, that’s the theory within the Treasury and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, in any case. For the past few months, the best minds in these ministries have been working on a formula to get these sectors, specifically the haredi community, into the labor market. What they’ve come up with is a plan called 22+2, and we should all pray that it is adopted.
Under this new arrangement, a haredi who, having declared that Torah is his vocation and reached 22 years of age and is married with two children, will be exempt from military service and will be free to enter the workforce.
The current situation does not allow a haredi who did not do army service to enter the workforce until the age of 32, when he receives an exemption from mandatory, regular military service (not reserve duty).
Until this age he is not allowed to work; he must stay in yeshiva and kollel. If he does work before 32 he is breaking the law. At 32 it is very difficult to enter the job market, especially if you’ve been sitting in a yeshiva all day and have gained no marketable skills.
Statistics compiled by the National Economic Council, under Eugene Kendel, show that from the age of 32-34 there is a dramatic rise in the number of haredi men who enter the workforce. It’s not, as many seculars believe incorrectly, that haredim are lazy and don’t want to work. In reality, the current law doesn’t allow them to work until they reach 32.
After doing extensive research, the Finance Ministry settled on the age of 22, when a majority of haredim have finished their yeshiva studies, are already married with at least one child or have a second child on the way. Many of their secular counterparts are not in the same position, and thus cannot evade army service. By 22, most secular men have completed their army service and are well into their post-army trip to South America or Thailand.
THE IDEA of 22+2 was born in the Budget Department of the Finance Ministry, where officials had been looking for a formula that would get haredim into the workforce at a younger age without them having to serve in the army. In the Finance Ministry, they have already given up on the idea of “an army of the people.” Not so in the Defense Ministry, where the 22+2 plan faces its biggest obstacle.
A small trickle of haredim already enter the army, where they are largely absorbed into the IAF and intelligence units. There are about 1,700 haredim per year entering the army. The MOD would like to see a significantly higher number join the IDF’s ranks. Presently about 35 percent-40% of the haredi population of about 900,000 are in the workforce (if you ask secular people how many haredim work, you would probably get a much lower answer). Among the secular population, by contrast, the number stands at 82%.
The hope is that once a critical mass of haredim enter the workforce, they will pull in the rest of the sector because the socioeconomic gaps between those who work and those who live off government subsidies will grow too wide. The belief is that if you can bring haredim into the workforce from the age of 22, a critical mass would be created relatively quickly.
Officials working on the 22+2 plan argue that if, in the coming decade, the country doesn’t manage to bring in the haredi population, with a growth rate which is one of the highest in the world (second only to the Beduin) into the workforce, it will face a serious budget deficit due to the increasing amount it spends for welfare. They say that the more the haredi sector grows, the more it is dependent on government welfare.
In a “normal” democracy, the majority can subsidize the needs of the minority. But given a situation where the minority grows and grows, the stresses on the majority (who fund the welfare system) become too heavy and the whole system could collapse. If the majority remains strong and the minority stays at something like 10%, the current status quo is sustainable. But if the minority continues to grow rapidly and does not enter the workforce, the majority (which is already grumbling) will find the situation unsustainable, and this could lead to serious social tension whose outcome could be disastrous.
Even today, statistics show that of the children who will reach first grade six years from now, the majority will be haredim and Arabs. Every second child born here today is either haredi or Arab. Most of this country’s poor are haredim and Arabs. If you take those sectors out of the equation, the percentage of poor is within the OECD average.
Another element in the 22+2 plan rests on the proven fact that many haredi men take very well to professional retraining and learn new skills quickly. By spending almost his entire life studying in a yeshiva, a young haredi’s mind is a sponge for new information, for critical thinking and philosophical argument. So for jobs that require rote learning, like law or non-mathematical computer programming, for instance, haredim could be trained rather quickly and efficiently. Experience has shown they are quick on the uptake at these jobs and display, unsurprisingly, impressive performance.
SO WHERE do things stand now? The official position of the Defense Ministry is to reject the 22+2 formula as it negates the people’s army principle, although there are different voices within the ministry. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed his director-general, Eyal Gabbai, to look into the matter and propose a solution. Gabbai is expected to present his recommendations within the month, and the Knesset is also set to debate the issue.
What’s in it for the haredi parties and why should they support it? Both Shas and United Torah Judaism are in favor of the 22+2 formula, as it is in their interest to have more of their flock enter the workforce, while still maintaining child benefit allowances (the only thing they will lose is their kollel allowance, which in any case is not high). Netanyahu, as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, slashed haredi child benefits, and even after restoring some of them in his current incarnation as PM, their level has not reached what it was before the initial reduction.
Furthermore, the benefits amount to minimum wage, which will serve to keep the haredi population in a state of permanent poverty, which is unsustainable. If the 22+2 formula defeats any legal petitions (mostly by secular organizations arguing that it discriminates against non-haredim), it may be legislated and could eventually replace the Tal Law, which has so far proven to be ineffective in getting haredim to join the army or enter the workforce.
If 22+2 goes into effect, it may start a chain reaction that gradually increases the wealth of the haredi sector, weans it off welfare and gives the country as a whole a new, dynamic economic growth engine. Many haredi leaders see the potential in this. The more secular Israel, the “start-up nation,” steams ahead and prospers, the more the tensions with the poorer sectors of society grow, and this is not good for anyone. The more the growing haredi sector relies on welfare, the more chance that Israel will go from a start-up nation to a shut-down nation. This Rosh Hashana, pray that 22+2 is adopted.