Part two of a series on poverty in Israel; to read part one, click here.
Ephraim Guttman illustrates both the face of poverty in Israel and a solution. Dressed in the uniform of the ultra-Orthodox — the requisite black suit and white shirt, which makes no concession to the scorching summer heat — he does not appear destitute in the classic sense. But like most men in his community, he was utterly unprepared for the modern workplace when he married two years ago at 18, with only a rudimentary education beyond the religious curriculum of a Jerusalem yeshiva.
While Israel is eagerly joining the elite club of developed nations, and luxury buildings rise above the modest Bauhaus landscape that once defined Tel Aviv, and while stock offerings and real estate prices and the number of start-ups continue to soar, economic and social inequalities are growing, too, threatening the Jewish state’s civic fabric and its ability to prosper and defend itself. No longer a nation of struggling immigrants and refugees, Israel’s economic challenges are driven by the persistent non-employment in two key populations, Arab Israelis and Haredi men like Guttman.
That these two groups share a sort of ignoble bond is a deep irony of Israeli society. Their structural poverty is caused or enabled by long-standing government policy: By subsidizing Haredi men who study instead of work, and exempting them from military service, successive Israeli governments have created huge incentives toward non-employment that are only now beginning to be dismantled. Meanwhile, the gross public disinvestment in Arab communities has left those residents nearly four times more likely than their Jewish counterparts to live in poverty.
But, interestingly, creative grassroots efforts to address these problems also have much in common. “The culture of dependency cuts across populations, and they all face discrimination in the workplace,” says Chaviva Eisler, who oversees an employment center supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Jerusalem. “So you have to work with the population you are serving to build interventions that are culturally and religiously appropriate.”
Eisler comes from the Orthodox world herself, and she has seen the evolution from, in her words, “a society of earners to a society of learners.” It was not always so in Israel, and still isn’t the case in many communities around the world. A recent study found that only 18% of Haredi men in London sit in yeshiva all day, compared to about 67% in Israel. Why? British welfare policy encourages work. Traditional Jewish education there includes nonreligious studies. And there is no mandatory military service to flee, so entering the work force is more palatable.
So Eisler’s center, Mafteach, has much to overcome. Since the ultra-Orthodox in Israel don’t feel comfortable using government employment centers, Mafteach deliberately acknowledges the Haredi lifestyle: Men and women are trained separately, and clients are placed in jobs with a shomer Shabbat schedule. The staff works closely with rabbinic leadership, encouraging them to support men working outside the home. Dignity is at stake here, and social status. Guttman consulted with his rav before taking a job in a matzo factory, and then another job managing a produce market; the young man was told he could work as long as he studied one hour every day.
There are many obstacles placed before Arabs seeking to enter the Israeli workforce — poor skills from under-resourced education; lack of access to jobs; pure discrimination — but culture is also an impediment, particularly for women. “We try to convince husbands to let their wives out of their homes,” explains Mohammed Namneh, project director in the JDC’s Tevet employment initiative in Jerusalem. His program employs a kind of gentle peer pressure, with group discussions for reluctant husbands, and visits from those men who have already made the leap. Women must be assuaged, as well: “We tell the women, ‘You don’t have to take your scarf off to do this job.’ We don’t go against the cultural taboos, never.”
And, much like Eisler’s attempts to utilize rabbinic leadership, Namneh strives to convince imams to talk about shared responsibility in the home and the Islamic tradition that considers work a kind of worship. “We focus on work as a value, work as something that can improve the family situation,” he says. “And once they see the first salary, they get satisfied.”
Clearly, grassroots interventions alone will not satisfactorily address this problem. When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that poverty in Israel is more widespread than in any of the 30 nations in this elite global club, it noted that “tackling the causes of such entrenched and wide inequalities as exist in Israel will not be easy. It will require a sustained effort across a broad range of policy areas.” Among them: better enforcement of labor laws and anti-discrimination policies, and serious investment in education and welfare-to-work programs.
But government policy in any democracy depends in part on the will of the people. The Haredi and Arab communities in Israel are too often isolated as the “other” by a largely secular society with little patience for the stringencies of ultra-Orthodoxy, and by a largely Jewish citizenry with little sympathy for the Arabs in its midst. And yet these two substantial, growing minorities may hold the key to Israel’s economic future.
As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn noted recently: “If Israel managed to reach its current standard of living without them, one can only imagine where we could go with the added talent and motivation that is not currently being tapped…. If we open our doors to them and give them opportunities, we will all benefit. And if we continue to shut ourselves off, we will all crash.”
Preceding editorial from The Forward reprinted with permission
By Rabbi Dow Marmur
JERUSALEM (Press Release)–You only have to read The Marker, the business section of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, to be aware of the economic dynamism in the country. Whether it’s the ads for expensive cars or the availability and prices of luxury homes, the reader is soon persuaded that there’s scope for the good life here and that there’re people to enjoy it. Indeed, in many ways, one of the miracles of Israel is its economy. But this doesn’t allow us to be blind to the plight of the part of the population that cannot afford a Lexus or a Cadillac and will never live in a villa in Herzliya.
If any eyes needed to be opened to this reality, the Secretary General of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) did it. In response to Israel’s request to be admitted to this body that both reflects and promotes economic growth in 30 countries and supports others, he told us that in the likelihood of Israel being admitted later this year, it’ll be the poorest member of the club.
The reason is that the majority of two large sectors of Israel’s population continue to live far below the OECD (and the Israeli, for that matter) poverty line: the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. The former have many children while potential breadwinners engage in their kind of Torah study and expect to be financed by others, including the state. The latter also have more children than others and are deprived of the educational and social infrastructure to be able to play their full part in the country’s economy. They may be better off than their kinsfolk in Arab countries, but lag behind most Israelis.
Judging by the statements of members of the government of Israel, the jolt from the OECD will force it to do something about it. In the case of the ultra-Orthodox, much more pressure may be applied and many more opportunities offered for haredi men to seek gainful employment and get training for it outside their present scope of study. In the case of the Arabs, the government must stop neglecting them and, at the same time, tame its bureaucracy to be more cooperative in dealing with them.
In both cases it’s a matter of will. In the haredi case, the will to accept that they won’t be able to eat unless they work; in the Arab case, it’s the government’s will to treat its more than a million Arab citizens as equals in every sense. Neither is going to be easy without outside intervention. That’s why the OECD report is so important, not only because it’ll allow little Israel to play in the world’s top economic league, but also because it’ll force it to deal favorably with its poor. Thank you OECD!
Israel’s economic success vindicates those who’ve been saying for some time that the role of the Jewish Diaspora must change from philanthropy to partnership. By all means, let Jews abroad continue to support charities in Israel but the joint campaigns that keep a large bureaucracy known as the Jewish Agency is out of date and out of place. Israel and the Diaspora will always need each other, but in matters of Israel’s security and standing in the world and to help secure the allegiance and future of Jews everywhere.
I surmise that Jews in the Diaspora who may read will reject it. That’s what has happened to those who have been saying it for years. For it demands a much greater engagement on the part of Jews everywhere in what’s going on in Israel politically, culturally and economically; it’s much easier to give money and wait for naches and yichus. The OECD reminds us of what we should have known for some time.
Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He now divides his time between Canada and Israel