One of Netanyahu’s Most Stunningly Irresponsible Decisions Threatens Israel’s Future
“A revolt against the Haredim is coming”: Netanyahu’s ego-driven fixation on winning the election at all costs could now collapse Israel’s economy and tear apart its social fabric.
“A revolt against the Haredim is coming,” my Israeli cousin yelled into the phone about the ultra-Orthodox community. “Israelis can’t take it anymore. Young people can’t afford apartments here. The price of everything is skyrocketing. But the Haredim don’t work while the rest of us suffer, and now Bibi gives them everything.”
My cousin is in her 60s, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She served in the army, went to university, worked in the police, and then switched careers and taught special education until her recent retirement.
I had called to wish her a shana tova, and after catching up on family, asked for her take on the political situation in Israel. What had set her off was Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise, if elected prime minister, to provide full funding for Haredi schoolchildren who don’t study Israel’s core curriculum. (The core curriculum includes math, English and science.)
Haredi schools that teach Jewish studies only – with meager exceptions – receive smaller subsidies per student from the government. Extra funding has been seen as an incentive for the schools to broaden their offerings and equip their children with the skills they need to enter the working world.
And some of the time, the system works. The Belz Hasidic sect had been negotiating with the current government to begin teaching the core curriculum and receive the additional funds.
But other factions of the Haredi world saw the Belz decision to embrace secular studies as a betrayal of principle, not to mention a breach of communal discipline. And they proclaimed that they would withdraw from United Torah Judaism as a protest, thereby threatening support that Netanyahu expected to receive from that party in the upcoming election.
Netanyahu’s solution? He promised, if he won this time, to equalize funding for all schools, without any requirement to study core subjects. Support, in other words, was potentially available unconditionally. So Belz went along with the demand not to teach the core curriculum. And unity was restored in United Torah Judaism.
Because among the many foolish decisions that Benjamin Netanyahu has made in his life, this is one of the very worst. Because Netanyahu, with his ego-driven fixation on winning the election at all costs, has put his personal interests ahead of the interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Because lessening the pressure on Haredi Jews to study the core curriculum is a stunning act of irresponsibility with ominous implications for Israel’s economy and social fabric.
American Jews read every day about the threats to Israel from Iran and Hamas. But the core curriculum question poses a threat that is nearly as serious: economic collapse. And the tragic irony, of course, is that no one knows this better than Netanyahu, Israel’s self-appointed economic guru and one-time hard-liner on the need for economic discipline.
Let’s consider what exactly Netanyahu did.
The Belz Hasidim decided to have their children study math and English in return for increased funding for their schools. The children would be better prepared for the working world, and the Belz didn’t feel that the children’s religious commitments would be undermined. A win all around.
But because Netanyahu perceived potential danger to his election prospects, he offered a significant political bribe so that the Belz would not do what every educator and economist in Israel has been saying for years that Haredi Jews should do.
And he succeeded. Not only have the Belz backed away from the core curriculum, but in all coalition negotiations for the foreseeable future, the Haredi establishment – which opposed Belz from the start – will begin with the “Bibi precedent”: equal funding for Haredi schools without curriculum requirements of any kind.
For the Haredi world, this means that all future governments will have less leverage to push Haredi children – boys in particular – into core curriculum classes. The result will be that the children won’t acquire the skills required to earn a livelihood, support their families and contribute to society in a manner expected of all citizens, religious or otherwise.
And who, therefore, will do the supporting? Everyone else. That was the reason for my cousin’s outrage.
She knows what everyone knows but few are willing to say. Israel is in the process of becoming a giant welfare system in which 7.5 million non-Haredi Israelis support what soon will be 1.5 million Haredi Israelis who keep to themselves, pay little in taxes and have far, far fewer full-time workers than other population groups.
The governor of the Bank of Israel recently said that if the Haredim don’t dramatically increase their participation in the job market, taxes will have to be raised by about 15 percent.
The employment numbers are sobering. Only 50 percent of Haredi men are fully employed. (The numbers for women are much higher.) And much of the work they do is part-time, unskilled and poorly paid. Prof. Dan Ben-David, director of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, has pointed out time and again that Israel is a First World country with an advanced economy, a First World military and sophisticated enemies; it simply cannot survive with workers who graduate from a Third World education system.
Many insist, even in liberal circles, that coercion is self-defeating and change in the Haredi world must come from within. Leave them alone and Haredi parents who want more for their children will bring about reform.
But they won’t, even though many such parents exist. Consider that the Haredi male employment rate hasn’t budged in more than five years. And consider the power of Haredi leadership to squelch any progress by allying with Netanyahu and his cohorts; Bibi’s recent escapade with United Torah Judaism demonstrates just how hard reform will be, despite the desires of many young Haredim.
Israel is a regional power with an impressive national resumé, but it’s still a small country that remains vulnerable in many ways. It can’t wait half a century to resolve the problems posed by Haredi isolation.
In the late 1970s, the employment rate of Haredi men in Israel was close to 80 percent, more or less the same as among other Israelis. That’s not ancient history but recent history. Why could we not get back to those numbers in a decade or two, and also make sure that they include Haredi programmers, techies, entrepreneurs, physicians and university lecturers, both male and female?
But to get there, the State of Israel must be prepared to aggressively wield its power, especially the power of the purse. It should do everything that it can to push and prod Haredi schools and Haredi parents to adopt the core curriculum, offering generous packages to those who comply, along with strict supervision of the instruction so that it’s properly implemented.
And finally this: Haredi leaders fear that the state’s agenda is to draw their children away from ultra-Orthodox Judaism. But I would hope that the state would allay those fears.
Those who wish to be Haredi should be Haredi, and they should live their Jewish lives with the full support of the Jewish state.
The purpose of the core curriculum and professional training is not to “synthesize” Torah and secular life. In Haredi eyes, such a synthesis is impossible.
The purpose is simply to assert that in the Jewish state, one can be pious without compromise and still meet the fundamental obligations that a Jew has to his or her family, community and country.
Meeting those obligations requires education. And not a single word in the Torah – not a single word – suggests that acquiring such education is prohibited; on the contrary, except for a tiny elite, it’s absolutely required.
Netanyahu surely understands this. But he chose to ignore the contradictions of current Haredi life, which, if left untouched, will lead to the fury that my cousin shares. Shame on him.