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Will the ultra-Orthodox hold Israel back?

Government subsidies, lower education expectations and political policies biased in favor of a religious minority impede the Jewish nation's future.

October 04, 2009|Stanley Gold | Stanley Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings Inc., is also the chairperson of Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel, a new educational and advocacy Israel-Diaspora partnership (www.hiddush.org).

As someone who invests in the Israeli economy, I know firsthand that Israel's strength lies in its educated workforce. It used to be said that to make a small fortune in Israel, you needed a large one. That is simply not true anymore. Israel's economy is ripe for investors seeking a strong return.

But there is an impediment to continued economic growth in Israel: the current dynamic of strong state support for ultra-Orthodox regulations.

Today, Israel's economic and overall security is under threat from the increased hold that the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, have on religion for Jews in Israel. Although, according to the 2006 census, only about 8% of Israelis consider themselves ultra-Orthodox, state funding flows to everything from segregated public transportation to religious education in order to accommodate a lifestyle that leads to a less educated, less competitive workforce. If this continues, it will challenge Israel as a global modern economy.

For example, in Israel, ultra-Orthodox schools receive full public funding despite their failure to implement the core curriculum of general studies required by the Ministry of Education. Haredi boys receive minimal instruction in math and language arts during elementary school. Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas (religious schools) for high school age boys teach no general studies whatsoever.

And these schools are not teaching an insignificant number of young people. By 2025, 22% of all Israeli children are expected to be Haredi. So, if the government continues to subsidize these inferior programs, within 15 years nearly a quarter of all Israeli children will not be receiving a basic education, and sooner rather than later the economy and commerce will suffer.

In Israel today, two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox men spend their days studying the Torah and Talmud and do not participate in the workforce. Their unemployment is subsidized by the state to the tune of about $1.3 billion a year. There is nothing inherent in ultra-Orthodox religious tenets that keeps believers from working: In countries such as Britain and the United States, ultra-Orthodox families do work because they know that they can't depend on outlays from the state. Israel must adopt similar rules if it wants a first-class economy.

Indeed, the Israeli public is concerned about the subsidies. According to new polling data commissioned by the nonprofit group Hiddush and conducted by Israeli pollster Raffi Smith, 71% of the public support reducing government funding for yeshivas and families with more than five children in order to move Haredim out of the yeshivas and into the workforce. Support for reducing government funding rises to 75% when respondents are informed that there is no government subsidy for yeshivas in London and New York -- two large Haredi population centers -- and that Haredim there participate in the workforce.

Another egregious form of support for the ultra-Orthodox is state financing of segregated public bus lines. The publicly subsidized bus companies have instituted this service for their ultra-Orthodox riders who refuse to allow men and women to sit together, while also demanding that women dress in a manner that won't offend male riders. And these ultra-Orthodox bus riders pay a reduced fare not available to secular riders. One bus company, Egged, even opened a special platform in Jerusalem's central bus station, located far from the other platforms, for Haredi passengers so that their young people won't be influenced by the stores in the complex or by other travelers.

In addition, the bus company agreed to launch a new mehadrin, or religious route, between Jerusalem and the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak, outside of Tel Aviv. This route accommodates Haredi riders who wish to avoid the central bus station altogether and now includes departures to other Israeli cities with large Haredi populations.

And who pays for these special accommodations? Not the Haredi, but rather the Israeli taxpayer. Surveys show that 80% of the Israeli public wants this subsidy ended.

The system has survived, in part, because politicians are dependent on blocs of voters to form or maintain a government. And although the ultra-Orthodox are not a big enough force on their own to take control, they are often a major factor in determining which parties can put together a large enough bloc to win power.

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