Sharing the burden, a fresh perspective

In Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, which are heavily populated by haredim, the poverty statistic is 70 percent.

Haredi men in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Haredi men in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
If there is one overriding issue the recent elections placed on the nation’s front burner it is that of “sharing the burden,” the burden referring to military or national service, and the sharing to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab sectors.
But is the desire for haredim in the IDF really what drives a disgruntled electorate apoplectic? Does the IDF really want haredim – in their current unwilling, entitled, entrenched mindset – in its ranks? Do we, as a nation, really need 50,000 functionally illiterate, physically unfit and culturally antagonistic young men in uniform? Has anyone considered the practical ramifications of masses of hostile boys trading in their black hats for army berets? Or is what bugs us simply the fact that the taxpayer is fed up with feeding an exponentially growing population of families headed by indolent men, most of whom are only nominally enrolled in yeshivot?
A casual look at Israel’s poverty statistics is revelatory. The typical Israeli city has a poverty rate that hovers around 20 percent. In Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, which are heavily populated by haredim, the poverty statistic is more like 70 percent.
In this utterly lopsided spread may lie the key to relieving taxpayer frustration, while creating an environment that could organically yield a normalization of haredi (and Arab) society.
It is time, indeed, to draw a definitive line between genuine poverty and willful poverty, and to remove the latter from our poverty rolls.
Genuine poverty, such as that of widows and orphans, the chronically sick, and the emotionally disturbed deserves to be given every aid possible. Willful poverty, i.e.
families headed by able-bodied, mentally balanced men who refuse to work for a living, should not be classified as poor, and should receive neither direct aid – in the form of cash handouts, stipends and aid for large families – nor indirect aid in the form of relief from arnona (property tax) and free medical care.
To begin with, our current official poverty statistics are a national scandal because they appear to indicate a huge gap between rich and poor, when this is hardly the case.
By striking the willfully poor off the poverty rolls our picture looks, and is, a great deal healthier.
ISRAEL IS not a basket case. Our burgeoning Jewish state shouldn’t have to go hat in hand, through a plethora of charitable organizations, to our “rich” relatives in the Diaspora begging for food. This is a disgrace, and it is unmerited.
There is plenty available right here – both in government and philanthropic funds – to care for the truly needy.
Haredim are very astute when it comes not only to sticking their hands in the taxpayer’s pocket, but also to helping themselves to the goodies being uncritically distributed by well-intentioned third-sector organizations. These include monthly food baskets, free soup kitchens, subsidized wedding halls (where a small wedding is one with 400 guests), food banks and holiday food distribution programs, and clothing vouchers for children.
Many double- and triple-dip by receiving free food from several charitable organizations. And none of this begins to factor in a thriving underground economy.
If ordinary Israelis had a clue about how haredim mostly live quite well without ever doing a day’s work, they would be donning black hats and white shirts and enrolling in the nearest kolel.
Because it’s pretty much a free ride for life. And the only reason haredim can get away with it is because our government is willing to tango with their political parties, whose agenda is pretty much limited to one thing – getting more and more funding for their chronic welfare constituents.
Eliminating this mass burglary camouflaged as poverty cannot be done overnight. Sadly we are living with hundreds of thousands of men who have never known any other way. They are unskilled, unschooled, and convinced by their politically-motivated sages to believe that their lifestyle is sacrosanct.
To suddenly eliminate the flow of public funding might indeed create a mass of truly poverty-stricken families that lack the tools to fend for themselves.
The solution, rather, begins at the IDF induction center. Every conscription- age young man who passes the basic physical and mental requirements for army service should be given a choice; either to serve immediately (or do real, meaningful civilian national service) or to sign a waiver that deprives him – in perpetuity – of the right to ever receive any government or charitable benefits. This should be true for haredim, for Arabs and, yes, for secular Tel Avivians who are shirking service in ever-greater numbers.
No stipends, no food subsidies, no arnona waivers, no free medical.
Third-sector charities will be provided with the names and ID numbers of those who choose not to enlist.
They will then be legally prohibited from supporting these men and their future families, or else risk losing their status as tax-exempt organizations.
Families that are already chronically dependent will not be affected.
Faced with the stark choice of national service or forgoing the welfare route will, in short order, result in a sea change in haredi attitudes across the board. Haredi schools will suddenly find a way to obey the law in terms of teaching basic language and quantitative skills. Haredi rabbis will quickly discover that every Torah text from Chumash to the Mishnah to the Rambam and beyond legitimizes – in fact demands – that one work for a living.
Kolels will become, for the first time, selective in terms of who is admitted and who receives support, and the national burden of responsibility will be more equitably shared.
And yes, what is true for haredim should be equally true for all citizens.
Arabs and secular freeloaders should be no more exempt from their national responsibilities than law-abiding Israelis. Normalizing our society means eliminating willful poverty as a legitimate criterion for public assistance. Absent the moral corruption that results from politically horse-traded largesse, we will be doing ourselves – and this includes haredim – a huge favor by helping mainstream them into healthy, productive lives, which is even more important than just sharing the burden.
The writer is a creative director who spends half of each day studying in a non-paying kolel in Jerusalem.