News reports from Israel suggest a society coming apart at the seams. Women pushed to the back of the bus; men spitting on “immodest” 8-year-old girls in Bet Shemesh. It’s enough to make you wonder about the future of the Jewish state.
But this picture is wrong.
The reality, as my boss Natan Sharansky pointed out on Tuesday, is that the haredi extremists are becoming violent precisely because they are losing their battle against modernity.
Haredim are no longer content with their destitute existence. They are rushing headlong to work, to vocational training colleges, even to academia. Unprecedented numbers are choosing employment over welfare, modern education over luddism and – tentatively – military and national service over separation.
Here are the numbers, gleaned in part from an enlightening 2010 study (PDF) by the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office:
Haredim make up the poorest segment of Israel’s Jewish population. A majority – 59% – live below the poverty line, compared to just 14% among the general Jewish population.
The cause is overwhelmingly the simple fact that most haredim don’t work. Among haredi families where both parents work, just one family in 29 (3.4%) lives below the poverty line. Among families with one working parent, the number rises sharply to one in four (23%). Where neither parent works, two out of every three families (67%) are poor.
The takeaway: Those who work are not poor.
That’s why increasing numbers are going to work. Employment among haredi men rose from 33% in 2002 to 42% in 2010, and is expected to continue rising. Among women, too, employment rose from 48% to 55% in the same period.
Even better: This rise in employment was accompanied by a steep rise in unemployment. Follow me here: unemployment does not mean those who don’t work – but those who are looking for work. Between 2002 and 2006, a period of economic growth during which unemployment figures for Jewish men generally dropped from 7.3% to 6%, unemployment rose among haredi men from 9.2% to 11.6%. In other words, the demand for jobs among haredi men grew even faster than the increasing number who found jobs in an expanding job market.
More haredim now work, and more want to work, than at any time in the recent past.
If I was a haredi extremist, I’d be worried too.
Perhaps this is why more haredim are turning to higher education than ever before. In recent years, three publicly-funded and several private institutions of higher education have opened in Israel that are run by haredim for haredim, including the Haredi College of Jerusalem, the Bnei Brak Haredi College and others. Where just a few hundred haredi students attended Israel’s colleges and universities a decade ago, today some 6,000 are enrolled in recognized institutions of higher learning. More than 1,100 are studying to become engineers.
This desire for non-religious higher education is not the exception, it is increasingly the rule. A 2008 survey by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies found that almost 74% of haredim are interested in non-religious higher education.
More importantly, the number of applicants to haredi-friendly colleges probably vastly outstrips the number of students. For example, the Haredi College of Jerusalem is only budgeted to take on 500 new students each academic year, so it must reject 1,500 applications. (An additional 1,500 request information about enrollment but do not apply.) This suggests that if we can find the money, the phenomenal growth in haredi higher education could be accelerated even further.
Fortunately, the government has taken notice. Just yesterday, the Council for Higher Education – Israel’s higher education regulator – approved a 180-million-shekel plan to open haredi-friendly tracks in colleges and universities near haredi population centers. (The link is in Hebrew. Strangely, I couldn’t find any English coverage of this story.
While military service is still anathema in the haredi street, the IDF has seen what it hopes and believes will be the beginning of a trend, from 200 active duty soldiers in 2000 to 800 today – a modest number, but moving in the right direction.
National service, too, has seen a marked increase. Compared to just a few dozen a few years ago, over 1,200 haredim now serve in some form of national service, mostly with disadvantaged youth in their communities.
The extremists are right to be worried
To be clear, I’m not saying that the struggle to integrate haredim into Israel’s social fabric and economy has succeeded. I’m only saying that the extremists are right to be worried. While the media focuses automatically on the increasing audacity and violence of the extremists, it is largely failing to notice that all the relevant social trends in the haredi community point in the right direction.
Haredim are not cartoons. They are real people, as sophisticated and rational as the rest of Israeli society. So it’s a shame to see them used as fodder to sell papers, when the reality – that they are modernizing and abandoning their self-imposed ghetto at breakneck speed – is being ignored.