From the Kempinski Hotel where he is vacationing in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri has released a video accusing the Israeli government of starving haredi children. Though the magnitude of the poverty in Israel’s haredi sector is terrible, most of the blame lies with Deri himself and his friends, the community leaders who prevent their flocks from getting an education and, consequently, gainful employment opportunities. Instead of populist videos, they should be trying to address the fundamental challenges faced by the haredi community.
The video shows a haredi mother and child forced to remove items from their cart at a supermarket checkout counter, because of Israel’s tax on disposable plasticware and sugary drinks, and because the government canceled the “Deri coupons.”
These food vouchers were secured by Deri in 2020 from the state’s coronavirus budget during his stint as interior minister, to the benefit of his constituents. One might think, based on the video, that the taxpayer-funded welfare payments that the government disburses to citizens were gift coupons distributed by a politician to his constituents.
“A government that starves children has no right to exist,” the video proclaims. But the data show that what perpetuates the cycle of haredi poverty is the policy approach championed by Deri and his friends.
Poverty in the haredi sector is horrendous. In this community, which numbers 1,226,000 and constitutes 12.9% of Israel’s population, some 42% of families are poor—twice the percentage for the general population. The situation for children, who constitute a majority in the haredi community, is even worse: 60% live below the poverty line.
The main reason for this high poverty rate is that the haredim work less and earn much less. Data from the Israel Democracy Institute’s Statistical Report on Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel show that a large majority of haredi women (78%) work, but that they earn, on average, only 66% of the average wage of non-haredi Jewish women.
For men, the situation is much worse. Only 52% of haredi men work, and they reach, on average, just 56% of non-haredi Jewish men’s earnings. The reasons for these huge disparities are the choice of half of haredi men not to work, and the fact that those haredi men and women who do work hold low-paying jobs.
Why do haredim work less and earn less?
In a market that rewards education and pays higher wages to those with degrees in sought-after fields, the haredi education system is a barrier. Haredi education now accounts for a quarter of Hebrew-language education in Israel, and here, too, the data speak for themselves.
While in the state and state-religious education systems, 81% of pupils are eligible for matriculation, the corresponding figure for the haredi system is just 4%. This gap persists in higher education, as well. Only 4.5% of Israeli higher education students are haredi, and a quarter of them pursue degrees in education. A small minority (11%) are enrolled in universities, with an even smaller minority studying technological or other high-demand subjects.
This harsh reality is not a matter of destiny; nor is it the outcome of any government policy to weaken the haredim. It is the result of many choosing not to work, and of the haredi leadership’s longtime insistence on making non-Torah studies in primary/secondary school only partly available to women and completely unavailable to men, thereby blocking their access to higher education and lucrative employment.
Haredi poverty deserves a comprehensive, in-depth government response. Canceling the tax on disposables and cola won’t do this. Only a haredi organizational effort that goes over the heads of the community’s poverty-perpetuating politicians and leadership will be able to make proper education and employment accessible.
Such an effort, accompanied by appropriate government policies, would enable many haredim to live a prosperous life.
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center.