Going to Work

A controversial draft law is winding its way through the Knesset, which voted 63 to 37 on Monday to advance a bill to draft yeshiva students. Whether or not the law passes, what is most important for Israeli society is inducing haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to join the workforce. The government must put a priority on various programs seeking to integrate more members of this sector into the economy.

On Tuesday MK Tzipi Livni slammed the current draft bill in an interview. “Every Israeli citizen must serve Israeli society, whether in the army or through national service,” she said. “The army should be the first to decide who is fit to serve and who can serve society through other means.” She and other critics of the current bill argue that it is weak and includes loopholes that will still allow haredim to avoid service. Although the law includes financial sanctions against yeshiva budgets if conscription targets are not met, these sanctions are not strong enough.

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Currently, around 15% of Israelis eligible for conscription every year are exempt because they claim Torah is their profession, according to Uri Regev of Hiddush. And those numbers will grow. Fully 27% of first-graders in Israel’s Jewish population are enrolled in ultra-Orthodox schools.

The battle over the latest law ignores the elephant in the room, which is the end goal. As Jerusalem Post reporter Jeremy Sharon pointed out on Wednesday, the current legislation is an example of kicking the can down the road. If the conscription targets are not met after five years, the Knesset will have another 12 months to draft new legislation. History shows that governments come and go and they are never able to really change the phenomenon of draft avoidance.

However, there are positive signs that the larger and more important issue of the ultra-Orthodox joining the workforce has been moving in the right direction.

A Taub Center study in 2017 showed that “more haredim have entered higher education and the labor force…. The number of haredim enrolling in higher education nearly tripled in six years.” In 2014 for instance, 3,227 haredim began studying for a degree, and the share of haredi male students out of the total male student population reached 8%. For haredi women it was even better, at 15%. Previously, only 2.4% of men and 8.3% of women had an academic degree, so the future will show a several fold increase in the numbers receiving degrees and possessing the requisite skill sets to enter the workforce.

From 2002 to 2016 the percent of haredi men employed jumped dramatically from 35% to 51.7%.

Then it evened out last year to around 50%. The target for 2020 is to have 66% of Orthodox men employed.

This would still lag behind the 80% in the rest of society, but it would help be an engine for Israel’s continued economic success. The Bank of Israel warned about the effects of a decline in 2017. One problem is that government largesse in the form of subsidies for those who postpone entering the labor market is giving the men an incentive to remain outside. Haredi women have kept up with their peers in Israeli society, with 73% of them working, compared to 81% among non-haredi women, according to 2017 data from the Central Bureau of Statistics. Women are also increasing their role in hi-tech. According to data from 2016, out of 4,500 haredim in hi-tech, 80% were women.

There is fear the new conscription bill could set Israel back, as haredim are able to once again postpone service, which has tended to be an indicator of integration into the economy. Israel is already losing billions of dollars a year in taxes from the low employment rates.

In his 2000 book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argued that ideas reach a critical mass in society, after which they spread much quicker. This is as true for the value of work in a society as it is for other values. Israel is on the cusp of a tipping point in haredi employment. But the current draft bill and the government’s constant attempt to manage crises through agreements, deferments, compromises and fiddling may allow us to retreat from that critical mass. Now is the time for all the parties that care about the future of the country and its economic success to work together so that the next generation will have the opportunities it deserves to benefit from a successful economy.