Give us a chance
By Rony Paluch • Ha'aretz
The 2009 report by the Ono Academic College on discrimination in the workforce, which revealed with great fanfare earlier this month that most employers hiring for positions requiring academic degrees are unwilling to give jobs to Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox and Ethiopian Israelis, didn't tell us anything new. I know these things firsthand.
Readers will probably not be surprised that the Arabs won first place in the discrimination parade, with 83 percent of employers saying they prefer not to hire them. This is a separate issue, in which I have no expertise, but it's hard to see how a society that complains to the Arab public about its separatism can, at the same time, prevent it from integrating into nearly any type of job - whether as a railway worker or a low-level administrator in public service.
In second place on the reprehensible list of those with an academic education who can't find jobs are the ultra-Orthodox. All right, you may say, how many of those are there, after all? Yet, in recent years the press has not stopped reporting on "the academic revolution" among the Haredi public. They photograph the thousands of graduates on the Haredi campuses and write admiringly about the women who manage to give birth to 10 children, cook, clean and launder, complete a programming course with honors and work as managers.
My ultra-Orthodox friends take umbrage at this admiration. It's patronizing, they say, and reflects secular people's profound ignorance about our lives. "My father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather worked and earned a living and also studied at a yeshiva," say my friends. "What's new?"
I myself have decided not to get insulted; any form the revolution takes is fine with me. The change is significant, it embraces large parts of the ultra-Orthodox public and it is affected by many, varied factors. These range from greater openness to the wider world and the influence of relatives abroad, to an accelerated process of Israelization and a fierce desire to participate in the economy and society.
It is true that our ancestors worked, and that alongside the devoted talmidei hakhamim - students of religious learning - whom our society has traditionally nurtured, there have always been balabatim, "heads of households," who bear the burden of earning a living. But academic studies are a different issue, one with far-reaching consequences. Such education gives Haredim the opportunity to learn the "language" and the "system," and thus to gain entry into the very heart of Israeli consciousness.
When I completed my law studies, and my wife, children and parents embraced me proudly, I thought there would be no problem joining one of the leading firms: My grades were high, I was no longer a child, I had extensive connections in the business world and everyone who knew me could warmly recommend me.
But the rejoicing was premature and excessive. In fact, it is hard to imagine the discouragement caused by my encounter with reality. I phoned a well-known law firm, to which some of my acquaintances had sent many recommendations on my behalf.
"Yes, yes, we'd be delighted," said my interlocutor, a well-known lawyer and partner in the firm. "Definitely. Come in and we'll talk."
However, when I entered his office he looked perplexed and surprised. "Ah ... look," he said. "Do you understand that the food here isn't kosher?"
"And that there aren't mezuzahs on the doors here?"
"And, well, there are women here and ..."
I tried to divert the conversation to the relevant topic: Was I suitable for the job in light of my qualifications and areas of knowledge? I did not get an answer.
"You know that many people in the firm work on the Sabbath, no?" asked my interviewer. "And what about laying tefillin? How many times a day do you lay tefillin?"
When I left, I already knew it was a lost cause.
"What kind of doss [a pejorative term for an observant person] did you send me?" the important lawyer protested the following day to someone who had recommended me. With that he slammed the door on the possibility that I would work at his firm. I tried another two or three places. The reaction was the same.
Israeli society cannot continue dancing at both weddings: It cannot both hate the ultra-Orthodox for their separatism and not allow them to work. Young ultra-Orthodox men are studying very practical professions - law, accounting, computers and paramedical professions - with the fervent hope that they will integrate into workplaces, prove themselves and support their families. If we are not given an opportunity, we will understand once and for all that the fine talk about the academic revolution is just that - fine talk.
Rony Paluch is a partner in the law firm of Hager, Paluch, and a member of the public advisory council to the State Comptroller and Ombudsman.
• Haredi grade schools and high schools do not teach English, science, history, Hebrew language, or civics.