Opinion

Haredi leaders must take responsibility

Massive budgets in exchange for political support is destructive in both the short- and long-term.

Haredi Jews attend the funeral of Yousef Kahn, one of the victims of the Meron tragedy, where 45 people were crushed to death on April 30 outside the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, May 2, 2021. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Haredi Jews attend the funeral of Yousef Kahn, one of the victims of the Meron tragedy, where 45 people were crushed to death on April 30 outside the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, May 2, 2021. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Shuki Friedman. Credit: The Israel Democracy Institute.
Shuki Friedman
Shuki Friedman, Ph.D., is vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.

One of the next crises in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shaky coalition will likely be caused by the conscription law, the enactment of which will likely be postponed. At the moment, Netanyahu is trying to buy off the Haredi parties, who are enraged by the delay in fulfilling his pledge to pass the law, with even more money.

This well-worn political tactic of funding in exchange for Haredi support—which all leading parties have done and will likely do in the future—is destructive in both the short- and long-term. If the exorbitant over-budgeting of the Haredi community continues, the government may survive another few months, but we will all pay the price.

The demographic growth the Haredi community gives it ever-greater political weight. As a result, we must rethink the integration of Haredim into all areas of Israeli life. But the coalition agreements and the months that have passed since the formation of the present government reveal that the Haredim continue to behave as if they were a small minority with high expectations but little social responsibility. Their budgetary demands, written into the coalition agreements, are enormous.

The items of greatest significance, in terms of their expense and effect on Israel’s future, deal with education. The coalition agreements promised a substantial budgetary increase for all types of Haredi educational institutions and students. Among other things, the agreements guaranteed more money for Talmud Torahs (elementary schools), yeshivot, avrechim (young married men) studying in kollels and even non-Israeli students attending Israeli yeshivot. Even more disturbing than the immense cost of these commitments was the abandonment of minimum requirements for budgeting and supervision.

Even today, the Haredi education system contributes very little to Haredi men’s ability to participate in the labor market. For the vast majority of Haredi men, expertise in the debates of Abaye and Rava—among the most quoted sparring partners of the Talmudic period—does not constitute preparation for higher education or occupations requiring math, science and English skills. However, the budgeting structure of Haredi institutions at least encouraged core studies instruction and subjected the institutions to some kind of supervision. The coalition agreements changed that, promising higher budgets for all Haredi institutions and reducing the oversight to which they are subjected.

One of Netanyahu’s main promises to the Haredim was the enactment of a conscription law that would give them a near-total exemption from military service. Because the law is unethical and inequitable, the government is having trouble enacting it. The anticipated compensation for the Haredim is more budgets for their institutions and narrow communal needs.

This cycle of massive funding in exchange for political tranquility is enormously destructive. First, there is the enormous cost. It is unclear how all this will be paid for, but a tax hike is highly probable. The long-term price is much higher. Instead of Haredi community leaders taking responsibility and changing their policy to encourage Haredim to integrate, they are using the money for the exact opposite purpose: To raise the walls even higher and keep the Haredim out of the workforce, military service and the mainstream of Israeli life. As the Haredi community grows, entrenched behind fortified walls but still dependent on state funding, the less able and willing the rest of the Israeli population will be to shoulder the burden.

Caught in a political trap, Netanyahu will continue to sign the checks on our unwilling behalf. But in light of the Haredi community’s increasing size, the demand for change ought to come from the sector’s leaders. Even if they can get billions more, they should take responsibility for both finances and policy, instead of trying to indulge the demands of Haredi political hacks and voters.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center. His 2023 novel We Didn’t Love Too Much was published by Yedioth Books and his just-released non-fiction work Being a Nation State in the Twenty-First Century: Between State and Synagogue in Modern Israel, was published by Academic Studies Press.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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