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Israel's volcano that is waiting to erupt

Israel has for too long ignored a large and growing slice of its population — the unemployed

November 24, 2016 20:54

Last week, Israelis marked Jerusalem Day, re-affirming the centrality of Jerusalem to the state and to the Jewish people. As usual, the annual celebration was accompanied by platitudes lauding the "unity" of the city.

Unfortunately, this is now no more than an empty slogan. Scratch beneath the surface and you will find a city sharply divided between Arabs, strictly Orthodox Jews and the remaining citizens.

Approximately one third of Jerusalemites are Arabs. Many of them regularly visit Jewish-dominated West Jerusalem's shops, cafés and parks, although such excursions are rarely reciprocated. To most Jewish Jerusalemites, Arab neighbourhoods such as Abu Dis and Jabel Mukabeer are uncharted territory, as conceptually distant as Damascus or Cairo.

Another third of Jerusalem's population is Charedi - strictly Orthodox residents living across a similar geographical, cultural and social gulf from the rest of the city.

Just over two thirds of Jerusalem's schoolchildren are Arab or Charedi, attending schools that produce notoriously poor secular academic results. Typically, only one third of the city's students graduate from high school - the key to further education and employment. And Jerusalem languishes as the poorest city in Israel, its tax burden falling heavily on its better educated, secular and modern Orthodox residents.

Jerusalem's failure to integrate its varied population seems part of a national trend, one that endangers Israel's prosperity. A report - State of the Nation - released last month by the independent and non-partisan Taub Centre for Social Policy Studies in Israel revealed that 19 per cent of Israeli men aged 30-54 do not work, compared to an average of 12 per cent among OECD countries, a grouping to which Israel has now been admitted.

It is easy enough to locate the source of this high unemployment. The report notes that a startling 27 per cent of Arab men in the same age bracket do not work, but this is paltry compared to a colossal 65 per cent of strictly Orthodox men of the same age.

The report's editor, Dan Ben-David, a well-respected academic who last year turned down a Knesset seat to devote his energies to studies such as this, noted: "we've created a situation in which a large and growing part of the Israeli population simply doesn't have the tools to work in the modern economy."

And growing it is. Ben-David revealed that, in 1960, 14 per cent of Israeli schoolchildren came from the Arab and Charedi sectors; today, they account for around a third. Ben-David predicts that, in 30 years' time, the percentage will reach 75. The potential impact on Israel's economy is catastrophic or, as Ben-David terms it, "unsustainable".

Israel needs to summon up all of its celebrated enterprise and energy to prevent the country from sinking under the weight of the non-working. Both Arab and Charedi sectors must be better integrated into the fabric of Israeli society. Such a process requires not only the co-operation of both communities but also the sensitivity of wider society to their unique concerns. In any event, the country can no longer ignore this perilous situation.

November 24, 2016 20:54

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