One of the major social issues – if not the major issue – facing Israel today is the poverty of the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) sector. Rather than advocating the continued use of government subsidies to solve this problem, a national consensus is emerging that higher education and job training is the way to go. The question is if Israeli academia is up to the task.

One wonders how we got to a point where the academic ivory tower is now viewed as a tool for social engineering. But more importantly, one hopes that the Israeli government and its Council of Higher Education have the tools necessary to ensure success without jeopardizing or destroying the outstanding infrastructure of academic excellence, innovation, and economic growth that has characterized Israeli Academia over the past decades.

In the early days of the State of Israel, the prevailing social structure was a combination of the immigrant culture of Ashkenazi immigrants from Eastern Europe and Sephardic immigrants from the Arab countries throughout the Middle East. The universities were viewed as elite institutions and being an “academic” was an honored title.

The Russian immigration to Israel in the 1980s changed all of this. Their numbers were such that they changed the fabric of Israeli society almost overnight, with the preponderance of those with academic training forcing the universities into a role they had never previously played. The universities (alongside the emerging Israeli hi-tech scene) provided an important tool for the acculturation and integration of this new immigrant population.

The government created programs to make room for Russian academicians within the universities and the corridors of higher education were filled with Russian speaking students and faculty. The contribution of this population to the growth of the State of Israel is well documented and their prominence today in Israeli industry and academia is testimony to their successful integration.

The social role of Israeli higher education was further enhanced when the educational bar for integration into the work force was raised. Whereas achieving high school matriculation was a mark of accomplishment in the early days of the State, this has now been supplanted by the need for a higher education credential, typically a Bachelor’s degree.

The government has responded by pouring resources into the establishment and maintenance of a network of 4-year colleges that open the doors of higher education to all, both in terms of numbers and in terms of geographic distribution. Privately funded colleges add to this picture, but it was the government’s decision to embrace and fund a large fraction of this system that implanted the idea of nearly universal higher education within the fabric of the Israeli middle and upper class.

It is clear that current issues of social integration and economic betterment of various populations will also require the massive involvement of colleges and universities.

The integration of the original Ethiopian immigrants into mainstream Israeli society was a challenge compounded by racial issues, problems of illiteracy, and radical culture shock. A number of customized educational programs have been established to solve these issues and programs like “Engineering for Ethiopians” at the Jerusalem College of Technology are important examples of what can be done with sufficient mentoring, customized remedial training and personalized employment placement.

But to highlight the severity of the social integration challenges before us, we must take this discussion beyond the rather modest numbers of the Ethiopian community and back to the employment of the Haredi sector, which now looms as the main social and economic challenge facing Israel today.

The complexities of army service and unique cultural norms (gender separation and religious insulation among other factors) also add to the challenge of providing appropriate academic and employment opportunities for a large population of men and women with strong intellectual skills but weak academic preparation. The Jerusalem College of Technology and several non-profit organizations, including Kemach, Keren Yedidei Toronto, and Chalamish, are among the first to tackle the challenge.

However, it is clear that a challenge of this magnitude requires a major allocation of resources, accompanied by social and political concessions and a willingness to accommodate the sensitivities and needs on all sides. The recognition of the urgency of this situation as expressed in targeted programs for Haredi employment through the Ministry of the Economy is a good start.

But it is not nearly enough.

The sheer numbers of those who need to be trained and prepared for employment in the Haredi community are such that the Israeli government must realize that higher education cannot take responsibility for solving these cultural issues without a complete overhaul of the government funding model for these institutions. It is unacceptable to continue a policy where academic budgets are viewed only through the lens of research and education, without explicitly allocating resources for the attendant social services and remedial programs needed to successfully integrate these populations.

Academic excellence must be preserved alongside an awareness that the funding of these ancillary services is in the long term interest of the country. While the social challenge is enormous, Israeli higher education is up to the task – if it is provided with the necessary resources.