The Jerusalem Post
The new government and the ultra-Orthodox
Will we really see a new direction?
In June 1977, right after the historic “mahapach” (“revolution”) that brought the Likud to power, the Agudat Yisrael Party joined the coalition. The ultra-Orthodox parties have been ensconced there ever since, aside from four short periods that lasted for seven and a half years all told. During the six years since 2015, until the inauguration of the new government, the ultra-Orthodox parties were a linchpin of the coalition. In those years, they repaid their voters by getting hold of “coalition funds” and additional subsidies. This was made possible by their control of the Interior and Housing ministries and the Knesset Finance Committee. This political power brought the trend toward a rising curve of employment among ultra-Orthodox men to a halt; the figure has stagnated at 50% for more than five years.
Now, as we anticipate the first government since 2013 without the ultra-Orthodox parties, it is important to understand what such a government will mean for the ultra-Orthodox sector and for Israeli society as a whole.
First, we can look back and learn from the past. In two of the interludes in which the ultra-Orthodox were not part of the coalition, there was no significant deterioration in the government’s treatment of the sector, as measured by legislation and budgets. This was due mainly to the ruling party’s desire to avoid a clash with the ultra-Orthodox (the Rabin government of 1993–1995), or the lack of political feasibility and the government’s short tenure (Barak in 2000). By contrast, the two more recent periods when the ultra-Orthodox were in the opposition were very difficult times for the sector. In 2003, the Sharon government made drastic cuts in child allowances and effected a large reduction in the allocations to the yeshivot. In 2013, the Netanyahu government, despite furious ultra-Orthodox resistance, passed the Conscription Law and significantly cut back the budgets for their institutions. The results were not long in coming; the belt-tightening required by the partial closure of the fiscal faucet had a direct impact on the employment of ultra-Orthodox men; during each of those periods, within two years there was a 30% increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox men working for a living.
What can we expect this time around? Despite all the hand-wringing by ultra-Orthodox politicians,
the coalition agreements suggest that the 36th Government will not introduce drastic changes in the status quo vis-à-vis the ultra-Orthodox sector. For example, there will be no dramatic cut in the budget for Torah-study institutions, which now cost taxpayers more than NIS 1.2 billion each year. And even were it trimmed by the NIS 300 million that are not included in the core budget, the reduction would be less than that made in previous rounds.
We can, however, expect to see three changes, two of which will push ultra-Orthodox men into the labor market. First, the reincarnation of the Conscription Law, which has been treading water in the Knesset for the past three
years, will finally be enacted. But we should not delude ourselves: the effect on military service of ultra-Orthodox men will be marginal. Nevertheless, the clause that lowers the age at which they receive a permanent exemption, from 24 to 21, should have a major impact on the ultra-Orthodox sector and on the Israeli economy as a whole. Should this change take place, young ultra-Orthodox men who are not particularly interested in remaining in the study hall, but whom the state now forces to stay there and in effect – forbids them to work, will look for paying jobs at a younger age. The change should also make it possible for young ultra-Orthodox men who are interested in serious vocational training or in academic studies to devote
the time to these demand before the heavy burden of supporting a large family lands on their shoulders. Despite the formal opposition by the ultra-Orthodox leadership and politicians, a survey of young ultra-Orthodox men aged 18 to 30, conducted by the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute last year, found that more than 75% of them believed that ultra-Orthodox parties should support this change.
Another change involves making subsidies for daycare conditional on the child’s father’s holding a job. By way of example, in 2014, when this provision was in effect, there was a leap in the percentage of employed ultra-Orthodox men.
The third change which is included in the coalition agreements for the new government – and is perhaps the most significant of all – would require schools receiving state funding to teach “core curriculum” subjects (such as math and English) and promote the state ultra-Orthodox school network (schools which include “secular’ subjects in their curriculum). There is already a formal requirement that schools teach the core curriculum today, but few hours are devoted to these subjects, and the monitoring of its implementation by ultra-Orthodox institutions is a joke. This stems in part from the political power of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the fact that one of their representatives has served as deputy minister of education for 10 of the last 12 years. If the new requirement is effective, it will have a positive and long-term impact on the ability of ultra-Orthodox men to find jobs extending far beyond the tenure of the new government.
Despite the cries of gevalt from those being relegated to the benches of the opposition, the new government does not plan to make use of all the means at its disposal to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to go out to work, and there is no doubt that it should do more on that front. For example, the new government, just like its predecessor, will continue to support some 55,000 kollel students over the age of 30 and engaged in full-time Torah study who do nothing to support themselves or their families. If the Government does not set a ceiling for the maximum age for this largesse, it will continue to undermine its own efforts to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to work for a living. With regard to the core curriculum, the Education Ministry must devise a mechanism of external standardized exams to monitor the way it is taught, along with inspection visits to ultra-Orthodox schools receiving state funding. Without these steps, the updated core curriculum will continue to be nothing more than a dead letter item on the director-general’s circular. Despite the limited steps planned by the new Government, it will nevertheless do more to promote employment among ultra-Orthodox men than did its predecessor. The time has come to actually implement existing programs on the ground and advance additional ideas that will increase the sector’s integration into the labor market and into Israeli society.