Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Israel Bank Chief Warns Ultra-Orthodox: Get a Job

AOL NEWS, July 21, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (July 21) -- God himself labored for six days before resting on the Sabbath -- but at least two-thirds of Israel's ultra-orthodox Jewish men aren't working at all, and it's becoming a major economic problem.

The governor of Israel's central bank warned on Monday that the rising number of ultra-orthodox men who refuse to join the workforce could trigger "social conflict" unless they take a lesson from the Bible and get to work.

Israel's robust economy, fueled by a generation of high-tech entrepreneurs, has helped the "Start-Up Nation" weather the global recession ahead of the U.S. and Europe. Also, Israel earlier this year won admission to the OECD, the exclusive club of the world's top economies. Israel's expenditure on R&D, at nearly 5 percent of Gross Domestic Product, is the highest in the world and its booming technology sector has brought enviable economic growth and stability at a time of global crisis.

But the growing ultra-orthodox population, their deepening poverty, noninvolvement in the labor force and private school system that encourages a nonproductive, scholarly lifestyle, could threaten the country's future economic stability.

Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer told reporters on Monday that poverty was still a major challenge among Israeli Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews.

He said that while poverty is falling among Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, it is increasing among the 10 percent of Israelis who are ultra-orthodox. That's largely because of an agreement allowing religious students exemption from military service that over half a century has mushroomed into almost an entire community living off the state. In order to claim the exemption, seminary students must remain at their studies until age 28.

The problem has become a major issue in political power-play between the secular majority parties and the tiny religious parties that hold the balance of power in Israel's fragile government coalitions. The 700,000 ultra-orthodox among Israel's population of 7.5 million are Israel's poorest sector. They have large families, with an average of nearly seven children per couple. Sixty percent of the community lives below the poverty line and the proportion is rising.

"This is not sustainable," warned Fischer. "We can't have an ever-increasing proportion of the population continuing to not go to work. So it's going to change, somehow or the other. The question is does that change happen in social conflict, in political conflict, or can it be helped to happen consensually and constructively?"

"Around 70 percent of the men don't work in the formal labor force. This is an absolute guarantee of being poor, if you don't work," Fischer said. "This is not a problem in the United States among the haredi [ultra-orthodox] community -- there, they work," Fischer said. "It is a problem in Israel. The question is why."

He said government incentives encouraging haredi students to claim welfare contributed to the problem and required a change in government policy. Last month, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that giving stipends to needy seminary students while denying them to secular university students is illegal. Religious parties have vowed to change the law.

Fischer's views are shared by Dan Ben-David, director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, who says nonemployment in the ultra-orthodox sector has skyrocketed in recent years. Ben-David says nearly one in five Israeli men between ages 35 and 54 are not part of the labor force -- 60 percent higher than the average among nations in the OECD.

"People say that the haredim don't work, that it's a religious or a cultural thing, but that isn't true," Ben-David said. "Thirty years ago they did work. Then, the rate of nonemployment was 21 percent. Now it's 65 percent. It grew threefold."

"It is still possible to change direction," he added. "The government must understand the implications of these trends and adopt a comprehensive program to change them without delay,"

The OECD highlighted the problem in accepting Israel to its ranks, urging "profound policy changes" and "efforts to encourage the Haredim to strengthen their vocational skills as part of a drive for a more self-sufficient -- and less poverty-ridden -- balance between religious worship and work."

But Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Finance Committee of Israel's Knesset parliament and a legislator for the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, told a government conference on religious sector employment last month that it was Bible study by haredim that had saved Israel from the global economic crisis.

"The haredim, who 30 years ago were foretold as the market's ruination, have prospered, and with them Israel, which suffered last from the global recession and was the first to recover. I would say this is a case of divine providence," Gafni said.

He said the low work rate among the ultra-orthodox was due to employer discrimination.

"Not a day goes by that I don't get a call from a haredi man asking me to help him find a job. What can I do? When a haredi man applies to a high-tech company he is the last one to be hired," he said. "I can understand the employers, too. After the media paints haredim as flag-burning rioters who have to take maternity leaves all the time, why would they hire them? We are not parasites. We want to work and contribute to the gross national product, but 80 percent of those looking for work can't find it."

1 comment:

mshbraun said...

I was impressed to see that you included a response/comment from MK Moshe Gafni at the end of your article. Living in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph we see quite a mix of both sentiments that are expressed in your piece. I think that without question what you quoted Mr. Fischer as saying is correct, including HOW it will change.
I wonder, however, if it is indeed changing now, albeit quietly and without media fanfare. I think that there are more men trying to find work, though I am not sure how many more. I think that while it would be nice for the changes to come from the top down, my sense is that the changes are coming from the bottom up right now. There is surely a need for more programs and institutions of higher learning that would be able to cater to the needs of the religious community in terms of professional training.
Of particular importance here is the influx of more "Haredi" olim from the West. Many if not almost all are working professionally here and certainly this has been assisted by Nefesh b'Nefesh and the like. In our neighborhood it is very common to see religious men working, whether here or "telecommuting" to firms in the US or Europe.
I think that this sets a fine example and will hopefully with time trickle down.
Thank you for your timely piece.
Moshe Braun
Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel