Our Ultra-Orthodox Conundrum by Steve Kramer
Israel is described as a racist country by its detractors. A sizable sector of Israel’s population currently lives in small, crowded apartments in poor, segregated, urban neighborhoods, where their extended families, synagogues, and institutions are located. They constitute about 12% of Israel’s population and most are counted below the poverty line. About half of the men are unemployed. Most of the families are dependent on government aid to supplement their meager incomes. They are prone to riot when they feel threatened by laws promulgated to the general population, often causing police intervention. They are the ultra-Orthodox, known here as the Haredim. Mainstream media coverage of this sector generally depicts them in negative terms.
But does their status as “poverty-stricken” connote racism? The skin color of the Haredim is the same as the great majority of their fellow citizens, so that isn’t a factor. Nearly all, except for a minority of extreme, anti-Zionist Haredim, are citizens. Haredim are born with the same rights as all other Israeli citizens, with no deficit because of race or religion. They have equal opportunities, but those don’t guarantee equal outcomes.
To briefly state the obvious, all people are unique, born with differing characteristics of body shape, intellect, health, and other attributes such as their family and their community. Where the Haredim differ from the general population is in their modest dress, their extreme religiosity, and their narrow education. Materialism is not a big motivator among them. Instead, piety, learning, belonging to a warm group, and being led by a charismatic rabbi are most important.
So, what are the causes of the relatively poor economic condition of the Haredim? It’s the conditioning, rules and lifestyle that their community imposes on them. For the most part, the rabbis of the many differing sects of Haredim impose stringent limits on how their adherents live. Modern society is guarded against, with a ban on televisions, smart phones, interaction of the sexes except within the family, mass news media, and much more. The education that is provided to the youngsters is generally devoid of material other than religious texts. Having many children is standard, as are apartments of relatively modest size. There is little knowledge imparted to the youngsters to enable them getting along in modern society. The obligatory subjects that are taught in the state-run schools are rare in the Haredi education system, despite laws mandating their inclusion in the curriculum.
The men are expected to attend yeshivas for their secondary education, which ideally continues throughout their adulthood. Serving in the military (IDF), or even doing National Service in its place, is discouraged. Despite these strictures, about half of Haredi men do have some kind of employment. Unless they are employed in the yeshivas, they have attained enough general or specific knowledge to work in the regular work force. The failure of the men to have enough knowledge to work at high paying jobs, coupled with the large percentage that are not in the workforce, accounts for the poor economic status of their community.
Women are subject to some of the same limitations as men, as well as others. They are expected to run the home and to have numerous children. Yet, many of them manage to attain a higher level of education than the men and to have jobs outside of the home. In fact, their workforce participation is approximately equal to the average of all Israeli women.
Of course, there is a segment of the community, both men and women, who attain higher education and have much better positions in the workforce. There are also wealthy families whose offspring join family businesses.
The deficit of Israeli men in the workforce threatens the economic viability of Israel in the future. The Haredi birth rate is extremely high, which guarantees that their percentage of the population, now in the low teens, will grow prodigiously in the coming decades. Unless something changes to ensure them a broader education and a higher workforce participation, Israel will no longer be counted among the most successful and prosperous nations. (Female Arab Israelis’ workforce deficit is also a big problem.)
I don’t think Israel is a racist country. It certainly isn’t an apartheid society, as our detractors also like to claim. All Israeli citizens have equal opportunities to advance themselves. As everywhere, it’s much harder for those whose family or community circumstances are substandard to succeed. Like all countries, Israel has income inequality and some racism. However, as one can learn from observing, or reading biographies of numerous successful people born into less than ideal circumstances, one’s efforts to succeed are of the utmost importance.
Full disclosure: I do not think it’s appropriate to label people “impoverished,” especially those who choose a non-materialistic lifestyle and are satisfied or happy.
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