Can we talk seriously about the haredim?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 21, 2003
Just as every gentile child in Europe knew from a young age that Jews were "Christ-killers, bloodsuckers, and parasites," so every Israeli schoolchild can recite the familiar litany of charges against the chareidim. Tommy Lapid draws upon stereotypes that have been drilled into the public consciousness over decades.
Haredi politicians have extorted every available shekel in the country, they don’t work, they pay no taxes, and they produce nothing. So goes the charge sheet. Yet each one of these claims is a gross distortion.
Just after passage of the 2002 budget, the newspaper headlines blared, "Half a billion to the haredim" (Yediot); "More for the haredim, less for education" (Maariv). Amnon Abramowitz assured his television listeners that the haredim had succeeded in extorting 500 million shekels more from the Treasury.
Ha’aretz’s Aryeh Caspi exploded each of these charges in an article entitled "Who really robbed our kitty?: Everyone is blaming the ultra-Orthodox. No one seems interested in the facts." Far from winning an additional half billion shekels, Caspi found, the sole haredi achievement had been avoiding slated budget cuts from the previous year’s educational budget. The total amount involved was 20 million shekels.
In fact, Caspi concluded, far from extorting from the state, haredim are actually discriminated against in the budget. The per student educational expeditures for the year 2000, for instance, show that Israel spent for $181 per month for each elementary school student and $241 per student for each student in grades 7-12 in the state educational system. The comparable figure for the Chinuch Atzmai system was $129 per month, and for students in recognized chadorim $84 per month.
Nor do these figures fully state the differentials in educational spending. Another four billion shekels in the education budget went for pedagogic directors and special services that are virtually unknown in the haredi educational sector. That comes to another $70 per month spent on children in the state system.
The most glaring disparities involved the 20,000 students on kibbutzim and moshavim, which operate under a separate educational budget. Monthly expeditures for those students came to $524 per month, more than four times the per student expediture for Chinuch Atzmai.
So how is the image created that the haredim have squeezed a vastly disproportionate share for their educational institutions. Part of the answer lies in the different budgetary process by which haredi institutions are funded. A very large percentage of haredi funding is not included in the regular state budget, where the allocations are renewed each year according to established criteria. Rather haredi institutions are funded from the so-called "budgetary reserves."
Allocations from budgetary reserves are renewed annually, which means that haredi Knesset representatives have to fight for them again each year with all the attendant publicity. In addition, ministers habitually claim that the "reserves" have been exhausted, and again haredim representatives have to resort to pressure to receive what was already promised.
If a journalist reveals that 50,000,000 shekels have been allocated for haredi residential educational institutions from the budgetary reserves, that sounds like a lot of money. But not when compared to well over a billion shekels for comparable non-haredi institutions in the regular budget. The latter figure, however, attracts no notice.
The result of this process, Caspi sums up, is that "an entire segment of the population is indicted without cause . . . [and] politicians and journalists are dragged into the fray with little or no knowledge of the facts."
The rest of the litany of charges also cannot withstand scrutiny. Take, for instance, the claim that haredim pay no taxes. Half of all tax revenues come from VAT collections. Haredim pay VAT like everyone else. And like everyone else, they make national insurance payments.
Half of the adult population of Israel pays no income taxes, either because they earn too little or nothing at all. Haredim may be disproportionately found in this group, but they constitute only a small fraction of those who do not pay taxes. At the same time, there is no evidence that haredim are underrepresented in the two upper deciles of taxpayers, who pay 90% of all income taxes.
We often hear that haredim do not work. That is only true if one resorts to a tautology: Anyone who works is by definition not haredi. On a recent Friday night in shul, I did my own little survey. This congregation is made up exclusively of those who learned for many years in yeshiva. Yet of more than hundred men over thirty, only five were still in full-time learning, and in each of these cases, the wife worked, as did most of the wives of the others. In the other minyan I attend regularly, every member either works or is retired, even though almost all send their children to chareidi schools or yeshivos.
What about the charge that haredim contribute nothing economically to Israel? That is not even true of the yeshivos and kollels, whose purposes are purely non-economic. For every dollar paid by the State to students in kollel, for instance, another four to five dollars are raised abroad. All that foreign currency comes into Israel and is spent here. The 6,000 unmarried yeshiva students and seminary students studying annually in Israel represent another major influx of foreign currency into the country. An equal number of young marrieds are living in Israel while the husband continues his Torah learning. They are almost entirely supported by monies from abroad, and are a major force fueling whatever demand remains for new housing.
Were Israel to cease being viewed as the center of Torah learning worldwide this vast infusion of money into the country would come to an end. Without haredi visitors, who keep coming regardless of the security situation, El Al and many Jerusalem hotels would have to shut down.
There is something ugly about subjecting different population groups to a cost-benefit analysis, as if to demand that they justify their continued existence. Perhaps only the haredim are subjected to this treatement– never Ethiopian immigrants, Israeli Arabs, development town dwellers, or, for that matter, the top hundred managers at the Israel Electric Corporation, who draw astronomical salaries and all the electricity they can waste.
Why is it that when film makers or artists complain of budget cuts, they receive nothing but sympathy from the media, but when the basic education budget for haredi children, many of whom learn in caravans, is slashed, everyone reacts with glee? The tickets of wealthy theatergoers and opera lovers are subsidized by the taxpayer at more than $20 per ticket, and no one cares. Yet monies for the study of Torah, our common patrimony, are inevitably treated as a waste.
Whatever the impact of the haredi community on Israel’s economy, it pales besides other factors that go almost unnoticed. Treasury officials prescribe a 10% cut in government salaries and in the public sector workforce to cut billions from the budget. But everyone knows that will not happen. The Histadrut would paralyze the country with a series of ruinous strikes were wages touched or workers fired. Yet the participation of Am Echad, Histadrut boss Amir Peretz’s party, in the next government is casually accepted, despite the fiscal folly he represents.
The kibbutzim have been repeatedly bailed out to the tune of billions of shekels, and they have been permitted to rent or sell valuable state lands worth billions more. Until the Rainbow Coalition came along no one looked askance at this form of massive welfare.
The economic structure of the haredi community is certainly not above criticism. The community is itself in a state of flux due to both internal and external forces. But as long as the public discussion of haredim is colored by so many distortions and irrationality, there will be no fruitful dialogue. Secular critics will only succeed in retarding, rather than advancing, the very trends they wish to encourage.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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