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Vol. 77/No. 12      April 1, 2013

New Israeli gov’t moves to end
special status of ultra-Orthodox
(feature article)
The newly formed coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel is a blow to the political influence and special status of ultra-Orthodox Jews known as Haredim. The Israeli rulers see the Haredim’s special status, in place since the founding of Israel in 1948, as an obstacle to capitalist development and maintaining a strong military.

Netanyahu’s Likud party lost 12 seats in the Jan. 22 election. After six weeks of negotiations that followed, he caved in to demands by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett—leaders of the two parties that gained the most—to exclude the ultra-Orthodox groups. This is the first time since 2005 that there are no Haredi-based parties in the ruling coalition.

Both Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which came in second, and fourth place Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, based in large part among Jewish settlers in the West Bank, focused their campaigns on the deepening economic crisis. The March issue of Commentary magazine notes, “Yesh Atid is no less pro-capitalist than Likud. The party’s platform advocates weakening Israel’s strongest unions (longshoremen, airport workers, Israel Electric Company) and lowering customs taxes in order to increase competition and lower consumer prices.”

The agreement for the Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett coalition includes introducing a bill to eliminate the exemption of military conscription for most Haredi men, a long contentious issue in Israel. The proposed law would also encourage Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are exempt from the draft, to voluntarily sign up for “alternative” national service.

Most Haredi men study the Torah full time at government-funded religious schools. Married Torah students receive small stipends that total about $30 million a year, in addition to welfare payments for income support and child allowances. About 56 percent of Haredim live under the official poverty line.

The Haredim comprise roughly 10 percent of Israel’s 7.8 million people and are the fastest growing part of the population after Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are about 20 percent. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, ultra-Orthodox women give birth to an average of 6.5 children, while Muslim women there have an average of about 3.5, during their child-bearing years.

The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel recently issued a report saying that by 2040, 78 percent of primary school children in Israel will be ultra-Orthodox or Arab.

Even as Haredi leaders have tried with diminishing success to hold onto their special status, the number of Haredim who are working has been increasing. Some 45 percent of Haredi men and 61 percent of Haredi women work today. The Jerusalem Post reported that since 2007 more than 10,000 Haredi men have been seeking work as locksmiths, plumbers, engineers, pilots and physicians’ assistants.

As more Haredim enter the workforce, they face some discrimination and are beginning to fight against it. The Jan. 10 Haaretz reported that six Haredi workers at HP Indigo, a computer software company, were fired after complaining they were being paid less and given fewer vacation days than other workers. “We can’t be coerced into providing equal pay and benefits,” Alon Bar-Shani, manager of HP Indigo, told the paper. “We’re not the Histadrut [the largest trade union federation] and can pay different wages based on different qualifications.”

In a March 12 column in Haaretz, Rachel Avraham, a Haredi woman who operates a day care center in her home, wrote about Arab and Haredi women who have joined a union affiliated to the Koach La Ovdim (Democratic Workers’ Organization) to fight to be recognized as government employees instead of as “self-employed.”

“You have been trained to hear that the Haredi and the Arab sectors are a millstone around the neck of the middle class,” Avraham wrote. “Allow me to invite you into a different reality, one familiar to thousands of Arab women and to Haredi women like myself, who work 11 hours a day six days a week and earn NIS 3,800 a month [$1,029], with no benefits.”

Opposition to some of the government’s moves, including those to reduce welfare payments to Haredim, “which can affect welfare payments to other workers too, could provide more opportunities for ties between the ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox and between Jews and Arabs,” Shay Cohen, organizational secretary for Koach La Ovdim, told the Militant in a phone interview from Haifa March 18. “It could be a way to overcome the divide and conquer tactics of the last decade.”  
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