Israeli government wants more ultra-Orthodox men to work, but faces pushback

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel's new government is looking to take advantage of a rare political opportunity to push more ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the workforce to boost the economy, a measure that could pit powerful religious leaders against politicians.

By 2065, Israel's "haredi" community is expected to make up 32% of Israel's population, up from 12% now, according to official estimates.

Only about 50% of ultra-Orthodox men work. The other half study religious texts in seminaries, and the Bank of Israel and economic leaders have warned of long-term strains on the budget if they are not integrated into the workforce.

"Raising the employment and labor productivity rates of the ultra-Orthodox population, especially men, are issues of strategic importance to per capita GDP, labor productivity, and reducing income disparities between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of society," The Bank of Israel told Reuters.

But for much of the last 12 years, two ultra-Orthodox parties provided support to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition, effectively preventing any change.

Now no ultra-Orthodox parties are in government, and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman is a determined secularist. Haredi men, says Lieberman, should "earn a decent living that is not based on allowances and handouts".

He has already fired his first shot; a plan that would require both parents being employed to receive state subsidies for child daycare.


Haredi politicians have roundly attacked the proposals. Moshe Gafni, head of the United Torah Judaism party, called Lieberman "evil".

Many ultra-Orthodox families are large, and are often supported by women, of which 78% hold jobs.

Devorah Lipner, a 22-year old ultra-Orthodox woman who runs a non-profit organisation in Jerusalem, said she may have to quit her job since she does not expect her husband to stop his Torah studies.

"The lifestyle of the ultra Haredi community is that Torah comes first and everything else comes second ... (and) it is my democratic right to live as per my religion," she said.

"Making life more expensive and more impossible is a very funny way of making people go out to work."

The Haredi community and some analysts have urged the government to not enact policies that may ultimately backfire and force women out of the workforce at the expense of men.

Eitan Regev, deputy chief executive of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, sees poor pay as an obstacle to rapid integration - many ultra-Orthodox men cannot command high salaries as they never studied English, maths and science.

"If job opportunities are created and the proper training is given so that the entry wages are high enough to compensate for what they will lose -- like Torah study -- then they will enter the labour market," Regev said.

State support for the Haredim and exemptions from military service have long been an irritant to many Israelis.

But the new government's wafer-thin majority may prevent Lieberman implementing reform - Prime Minister Naftali Bennett may need Haredi parties to join his coalition if others abandon it.

One crucial sector is high-tech industries. Around 10% of university students studying technology are ultra-Orthodox, and 10,000 Haredim work in the sector, 7,000 of them women.

Moshe Friedman, whose organisation Kamatech works to integrate his fellow Haredim into the tech sector and help them start businesses, said they could fill the vacancies that high-tech firms are advertising.

"I see a lot of young Haredim who want to join the workforce and technology industry. They are coming to us by the thousands," Friedman said, adding that the government "needs to just help them with better education and better training."

(Reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Mike Collett-White)