Thought Piece

A Yom Kippur Reading

Gershom Gorenberg on Israel's Orthodox challenge, from August's issue of Prospect magazine. (Paywall)

Americans are accustomed to hearing the Haredi blamed for the lack of a settlement with the Palestinians. That's actually the Palestinians' own doing. But the domestic economic and social problems created by a self-isolated minority within Israeli society are very real:

[T]he economic burden borne by the majority is more serious. It’s not a given that the army must grow with the population. But Israel’s economy definitely needs to expand, and has a harder time doing so when a significant minority will not or cannot work.

Again, numbers tell the story. In 1979, 21 per cent of ultra-Orthodox men aged between 35 and 54 were not employed. That was twice the proportion among other Jews. But things got much worse. By 2008, two-thirds of haredi men in that age bracket were not working for a living. Full-time religious study had become the most common occupation of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel.

Not surprisingly, 55 per cent of haredi families in Israel live below the poverty line, according to the most recent report by the government’s National Insurance Institute. The community is deeply dependent on government funds and private philanthropy. Men who study receive small stipends, paid for with a mix of state assistance and donations. Teaching in state-funded schools and yeshivot (Talmudic academies) and working for the state rabbinate are important sources of employment.

An education gap makes finding other kinds of work hard, especially for men. Boys and girls attend separate schools. Religion dominates the curriculum, especially in boys’ schools. At Nitei Meir, an elementary school in Beitar Illit, boys study religious subjects from 8:30 to 2:30, then have two hours of general studies. Rabbi Yosef Rozovsky, the educational director, told me that the curriculum includes arithmetic, Hebrew, and history. Civics is not on the list. Nor is English, a requirement for many jobs and for higher education. “The moment a boy studies English, he is exposed to the wider world and naturally he leaves religion,” explained Nitei Meir’s headmaster, Rabbi Eran Ben-Porat. The school’s purpose is to shape a pious personality, not to prepare boys for worldly pursuits, or participation in democratic society.

Many elementary schools provide even less general education, though some parents are aware that such schooling leads to a vocational dead end. One evening, in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, I listened to the pained musings of a haredi man in his late thirties. He had expected to have a “Torah position” by his age, a job based on his religious studies. But Torah positions have turned scarce; he’d found only part-time teaching work. Speaking carefully, he criticised people within his community who trust God will provide, yet he sent his sons to a school that allocates just 45 minutes a day to general studies. That is the new norm, he said. He had organised a private English class for his son and several other boys. It was an investment in his son’s future and a quiet act of rebellion. Before I left his home, he insisted I sign a statement that I would write nothing that could identify him, lest his criticisms hurt his chances of arranging marriages for his children.