Charedi dependency that brews resentment

Shoshana Chen is a charedi grandmother, living in Israel. She recently wrote an open letter to her grandchildren in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. In it, she expressed her difficulty in understanding why these grandchildren were the subject of such hatred by much of the Israeli population, "not only because you were born Jewish, but also because you were born charedim". What is really surprising about this is that Mrs Chen was surprised.

No week, indeed almost no day, passes in Israel without some new revelation about the charedi community, almost invariably negative. The major complaint is that they enjoy the benefits of living in Israel - child benefits, social security and so on - without contributing their fair share of the national burden, most notably by their refusal to join the army, or thereafter, the workforce.

A recent report by the Israeli Treasury noted that the country loses $1.5 billion annually as a result of this sector's non-participation in the workforce. This does not include large amounts directed to yeshivot and charedi "independent" schools.

Other recent revelations include the forging of thousands of identity cards (in order to claim stipends for non-existing yeshivah students), filing false numbers of students in kollelim, and joining the so-called "grey" workforce, when they are paid to study Torah. Apart from the places where only a small percentage of registered students were actually present when outside visits were made, a number of other "yeshivot" exist only as addresses to receive handouts.

No week passes without a charedi ‘revelation’

Another recent article unravelled the mystery of these missing students: they were out working. Theirs tend to be low-paid, unskilled jobs, since most have few marketable skills; worse yet, they are often exploited by less-than-scrupulous employers who enjoy the cheap labour without having to pay all their legal benefits. If they declare themselves, they will be losing their stipends as full-time Torah students.

Mrs Chen is correct in one respect. She notes how few secular employers are prepared to take on charedim employees. This situation is in stark contrast with that of the religious Zionists, who appear to gladly take upon themselves any role that the state requires. A recent IDF report showed that 30 per cent of all army officers are now kipah-wearing, religious Israelis. Their example clearly shows that there is no contradiction between being religious and participating fully in the life of the country.

It is difficult to see how this situation will change, given the deeply entrenched attitudes of this mainly anti-Zionist charedi caucus within Israel's political, religious and social life. A recent survey by the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies discovered that between 60 and 70 per cent of charedi men would be prepared to study in institutes for higher education, with the tacit backing of their rabbis. However, it would take some five years to earn a degree, during which time they would have to a support a family, no easy prospect within this particular population. It is also doubtful how many of the 600,000-700,000 charedim potentially able to take advantage of such opportunities could do so, even with government help.

Similarly, although the army is badly in need of manpower, the cost-effectiveness of taking in a large number of people with no secular education presents a major barrier to this group's integration into the armed forces. According to General Avi Zamir, head of IDF manpower, there is an annual potential of about 2,500 charedim who might join the IDF, out of 50-60,000 charedim officially required to do so but who in fact do not.

"Even if they don't become combat troops, they can still help in relieving the burden on the rest of the army in non-combatant roles. Within 10 years, 60 per cent of able-bodied men (charedim, Arabs and others) will not participate in the defence of the country." Zamir himself aims at cutting the figure of charedim who declare that "Torah is their sole activity" to 10 per cent of their population.

Any real change in this population's proclivities is in the hands of their rabbis and the politicians - not just from charedi parties but also from their coalition partners - afraid of losing their support. In the meantime, the charedim have some eight or nine children per family, as opposed to the average Israeli's two or three. Although The Hebrew University's Professor Amnon Gonen avers that they have "tacitly accepted" the existence of the state, secular Israelis view them as parasites, who endanger the country's social welfare system, its economy and its defence capability. Moreover, as Rabbi Shmuel Orbach (Rosh Yeshiva Gedola in Mea Shearim) observed some while ago: "In 50 years of charedi Torah studies, not one book has emerged of any consequence."

So, Mrs Chen, if you are still surprised at the attitude of fellow Israelis, you might want to follow the advice of the talmudic sages: "When bad things happen to you, examine your own deeds."

    Last updated: 12:25pm, January 27 2011