Last month, I wrote about new Israeli army programs designed for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, saying they offered hope for eventual Haredi integration into mainstream Israeli society. It now appears that this process is happening faster than I thought.
“In no area,” wrote columnist Jonathan Rosenblum in Friday’s Jerusalem Post, “are the interests of the general and haredi populations so congruent as haredi employment. Israel’s high rate of non-employment, to which haredim are a major contributor, is a major cause of [Israel’s] low productivity and sliding relative standard of living.”
That’s standard fare for secular columnists, but Rosenblum is Haredi: a regular contributor to many of Israel’s leading Haredi papers who is highly attuned to what can and cannot be said publicly in his own community. I’ve followed his columns for years, and never before has he said explicitly that more Haredim need to work — because until now, this was taboo.
A Haredi colleague explained this to me three years ago, after he proposed, in response to the national demoralization caused by the Second Lebanon War in 2006, that Haredim could offer an alternative model for Israeli society. I asked how Haredim could serve as models while refusing to work or do army service. His candid response was, “Every time I write that particular paragraph … your questions go through my mind. And when I speak on the subject, I always mention them. But in print we are silent.”
That a well-regarded Haredi columnist like Rosenblum is now willing to mention the issue explicitly in print is the clearest possible sign that this taboo has shattered. Indeed, he writes, “there is a growing recognition of the need for work” in the Haredi community, and “Young haredim are voting with their feet.” He also offers evidence for this change and explains the factors driving it.
Even more remarkably, he offers ideas for how the government could accelerate it. For instance, he suggests amending the law that grants per-child tax deductions to working mothers, but not fathers, creating an economic incentive for wives to work while husbands stay home.
Moreover, he notes, most Haredi men marry young and spend years in yeshiva before looking for work. Thus when they finally start job-hunting, they have children to support and cannot afford to leave yeshiva, with its stipend, to acquire essential academic or professional training. A private philanthropy has begun providing stipends to support such men during training, and with more government funding, this program could be expanded. That would clearly be a worthwhile investment.
Finally, Rosenblum writes, “The recent formation of a reserve unit within Nahal Haredi [a Haredi army brigade] offers hope for the removal of another barrier to haredi employment,” by enabling Haredim to do “basic training and subsequent reserve duty” rather than full army service (Israelis cannot work legally without either doing army service or being exempted). This open legitimization of army service represents the shattering of another taboo.
It’s still a long road to full Haredi integration in the army and workforce. But the fact that discussing it in print is no longer taboo represents a vital step forward.