The Attias plan

Critics claim Attias ignored Trajtenberg in order to benefit haredim, many who are unemployed by choice so as to devote their time to Torah.

Housing press conference 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Housing press conference 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi-bashing has become a widespread phenomenon.
But while some of the criticism directed at the ultra-Orthodox community may be understandable (non-participation in the labor market and the refusal to serve in the IDF or any other National Service framework), the wholesale attack on Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) was undeserved.
Even before he presented his program for affordable housing, copies were leaked to the press and the haredi minister was summarily lambasted for giving preferential treatment to his own constituency. However, a close look at Attias’s proposals reveals a mixed bag.
True, Attias decided to deviate from the Trajtenberg Committee’s recommendations. One of these recommendations was to place employment or active pursuit of employment at the center of the affordable housing plan. The Trajtenberg Committee recommended that “fully exploiting earning capacity” (which means that together a couple must put in 125 percent of a work week or be actively looking for work) be a condition for receiving rent-controlled apartments.
Under the “lowest price for the homebuyer” program, which pushes housing prices down by awarding projects to building contractors who commit to building at the lowest cost, those who work or who are actively looking for employment should at the very least receive preferential treatment, according to the Trajtenberg recommendations.
Critics claim Attias ignored Trajtenberg in order to benefit the haredim, many of whom are unemployed by choice so as to devote their waking hours to Torah study instead of productive employment. Still, Attias should at least be given the benefit of the doubt when he says that National Insurance Institute representatives called to leave out employment as a criterion for being eligible for affordable housing out of a desire to help the most destitute populations – the haredim and the Arabs – in which the level of participation in the labor market is the lowest (Arab women are often discouraged from leaving the house to work for cultural and religious reasons).
We believe it makes sense to overrule Attias not because he wants to benefit haredim, but because by adopting the Trajtenberg recommendations the plan would remain true to its stated goal of providing affordable housing for the middle class. Other programs such as public housing projects and subsidized mortgages target the poor. At any rate, while finding a job is not based solely on “luck” as Attias claimed Wednesday, we should, nevertheless, be sensitive to claims by various minority groups (haredim, Ethiopian- Israelis, Arabs) that they face discrimination when looking for work. The zeal to attack Attias for benefiting haredim should not eclipse this ability to be sensitive to real discrimination in our society.
Another criticism leveled at Attias is his decision to give preferential treatment to couples who have been married longer. Haredi-bashers claim this discriminates against secular couples, who tend to marry later.
But if Attias is to be believed when he says that on average couples do not get around to buying a home until they have been married for seven years, and since no special preference is given to couples married more than eight years, it seems clear that there will be little discrimination against secular Israelis.
The readiness to attack Attias for partiality has also prevented many from looking at the positive elements of his plan. He adopted a measure that would give preferential treatment to the handicapped. Also, half of about 5,000 apartments that will be made available at a discount under the affordable housing program will be reserved for families in which at least one of the heads – husband or wife – served in the IDF or performed national service. In the past, such a move would have been perceived by some as discrimination against Arabs, who are not obligated to serve in the IDF. But since national service is open to all, this claim can no longer be made.
In short, it is difficult to argue conclusively that Attias’s affordable housing plan discriminates in favor of haredim. Looking closer at the content of his proposal in a serious way leads to the conclusion that the knee-jerk criticism against him may have guided by prejudice against his constituency.