Changing the unsustainable

For past few decades Israel has proved its commitment to encouraging Torah study. Now it's haredis' turn to prove commitment to maintaining Israel’s socioeconomic viability.

haredi crowds 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haredi crowds 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Encouraging the study of the Torah as a central value in the life of the Jewish people,” is the stated intention of a bill that was presented last week by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation.
It encapsulates an honorable goal indeed, and one that should be pursued by the State of Israel. However, while Gafni’s intentions are praiseworthy, his implementation is wrongheaded.
In June of this year the High Court of Justice ruled that it was a “breach of the principle of equality” to provide welfare to able-bodied men who choose not to work out of a desire to pursue an intellectual life of Torah scholarship. These benefits are normally given to single mothers and other financially strapped family heads who are either unable to work or are in the process of looking for a job.
Unperturbed by the High Court ruling or by the public outcry against their move, UTJ and Shas are now insisting that unless the present government ratifies their law, which bypasses the High Court ruling, they will quit the coalition.
If the bill becomes law, married men with at least three children who do not own real estate or a car and whose wives earn less than NIS 1,200 will be eligible for NIS 1,040 a month. In 2009 a total of 11,137 families received the payments, which amounted to NIS 132 million.
In the larger scheme of things this is not a lot of money. With the vote on the first reading of the 2011-2012 budget and arrangements bill coming up on Tuesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was probably tempted to cave in to haredi demands for the sake of political stability.
There might also be some truth to the claim, included in Gafni’s bill, that “a very large portion of the Israeli population views the Torah study that takes places in kollelim [institutes of Torah study for married men] from time immemorial as the essence of the Jewish people’s very being and the best guarantee of Jewish continuity for eternity.”
Zionist leaders, no matter how secular they were, had always recognized the centrality of Jewish tradition to the creation of the modern Jewish nation. Nothing else could explain the Jewish people’s unique connection to the Land of Israel; nothing else could unite such diverse Jewish communities around a collective goal.
This probably explains the special arrangement made between the state and the haredim, who, at the state’s inception, made up a tiny segment of Israel’s population: The haredim would be exempt from military service and be permitted to devote their lives to Torah scholarship, to “keep the ember lit.”
But haredim must not forget that they have benefited tremendously from the State of Israel. Nowhere else has there been such a tremendous growth in Torah institutions, thanks in large part to state support. Nowhere else has the haredi population grown so quickly.
Haredim must also recognize that the present situation is “unsustainable,” endangering economic stability, as Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer pointed out this summer.
IN APRIL 2000, when former judge Zvi Tal presented recommendations to the Knesset to help haredim get off the dole and into the job market without forfeiting a commitment to mandatory national or military service, there were a total of 31,000 yeshiva students between the ages 18 and 41 who received deferrals from the IDF. Today there are more than 60,000, and about 100,000 men receive stipends of one kind or another for full-time Torah study.
The state of Israel can no longer sustain such a large population that relies so heavily on stipends and other welfare benefits.
No one understands this better than Netanyahu, an economist by training who took major steps as finance minister to reduce welfare expenditures. If Gafni’s bill is passed as is, it would be, as Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog put it, “a regression,” since it would serve as an incentive to remain unemployed.
In a report issued last year by the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, it was estimated that a haredi man who decides to leave kollel loses various welfare benefits worth between NIS 3,000 and NIS 4,000 a month. Central to these benefits is the one Gafni is fighting to keep.
Instead of offering incentives to remain unemployed, the state should think of ways to encourage haredi men to gradually integrate into the job market. One way would be to make the receipt of welfare benefits conditional upon participation in a job training course.
For the past few decades the State of Israel has proved its commitment to encouraging Torah study. Now it is the haredi community’s turn to prove its commitment to maintaining Israel’s socioeconomic viability.