Bank of Israel chief to fight poverty in ultra-Orthodox sector
Central bank governor Stanley Fischer stretched the boundaries of his authority to address an issue crucial to Israel's future: reluctance to work in the Haredi sector.
By Nati Tucker • Ha’aretz
The Bank of Israel hosted an unusual meeting two weeks ago. Central bank governor Stanley Fischer stretched the boundaries of his authority to address an issue crucial to Israel's future: reluctance to work in the Haredi sector.
Not only was the issue at stake a departure - so was the initiator: the widely circulated Haredi weekly Mishpacha, which has taken the burning issue to heart.
Participating in the debate were Fischer, representatives of Mishpacha, Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, top officials from the finance and industry ministries, representatives of manpower companies and of companies that routinely employ Haredim, the CEOs of banks that serve the Haredi sector (Mercantile and Poaley Agudat Israel Bank ) and public figures from the ultra-Orthodox community.
Acknowledging that members of the secular community might not grasp the sensitivity of the issues and their full ramifications, Fischer said, one thing nonetheless was crystal clear: Israeli society must find a way for a majority of Haredim to work while maintaining their lifestyle. "It isn't just your job, it's our job too," the governor said, adding that Israel's labor market needs the Haredi workforce.
There are many reasons for the low participation by Haredim in the workforce, including devotion to Torah and the lack of adequate tools, such as general education and training. But the debate at the Bank of Israel focused on the claim that it is up to the government to devote the necessary attention and resources to encourage Haredim to work. Its missions include incentives for employers to hire Haredim and establish employment centers for the community.
Yisrael Maimon, former cabinet secretary, said that the government "never had a problem" forming long-term plans for the Arab sector, proffering "budgets for infrastructure, for employment, for employment centers and welfare". There is a ministerial committee for Arab affairs, but none for Haredi affairs, Maimon said.
Atias concurred that the "government's omissions" were core to the problem. "The problem is that Haredim aren't defined as a sector," the minister said. That needed to be done in order for budgets and attention to be allocated. The ones who suffer from the situation are the Haredim themselves, who live in poverty, Atias said.
Oh no, government will have to keep its word
Litzman waxed skeptical about the establishment of a committee for Haredi affairs: "No government would dare set up a committee like that because in contrast to the Arabs, with the Haredim it will have to execute its decisions and it doesn't have the money," he said.
He also questioned whether increasing employment rates would resolve the poverty problem, and reiterated an old demand - that poverty be alleviated through child allowances. "Bnei Brak competes with Jerusalem as the No. 1 in poverty," Litzman said. "But the fact is that in Bnei Brak, in 80% or more of the families, one parent works. You can't demand that both parents work: There are children at home. The cause of poverty isn't that the parents don't work, it's the children. The only way to help is through child allowances ... If you want to say that it isn't necessary to have so many children, that's an entirely different matter."
A key issue is the Haredi refusal to provide general studies at their schools. Most Haredi boys spend their entire day studying Torah. They do not matriculate. Among girls, the situation is better: They do receive practical training, mainly for teaching but also careers in design and accounting, for instance. A pitched battle is being waged over providing basic education in mathematics, English and the sciences at Haredi education institutions.
Recently the High Court of Justice ordered the state to explain within 120 days why institutions that do not teach "core" subjects should continue to receive funds. The hearing will be held before an expanded panel of nine justices.
The Haredi position, which arose at the Bank of Israel meeting, is that they shouldn't be forced to provide basic education. "Haredi men can supplement their studies inside a year if they want to work," it was said.
Fischer felt differently. "Everything said about steps the government can take is right," the governor said, "but I think we have to look at the other side: the problem of education that would enable people to succeed in today's Israel."
"To find good jobs the men need academic studies," he said. They can study Torah in the morning and then work in the afternoon, the governor added.
The Haredim also accuse the state of blocking them from public service: The government should provide an example and give Haredim jobs, said Haredi publisher David Zilbershlag of Bakehila. Since Haredim lack academic qualifications, their Torah studies should be recognized as graduate degrees by government, he argues.
At the end of the day, economics is about supply and demand, Fischer elaborated: "We have to encourage the demand."
Atias: "Torah sharpens the mind."
Fischer: "We won't argue. Jogging also sharpens the mind."