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Working Solutions — The ongoing struggle to integrate chareidim into the Israeli workplace

Binyamin Rose

Israel’s vaunted high-tech prowess earned it the nickname the “Start-Up Nation” but for the 1.5 million Israelis living below the official poverty line, Dragged-Down Nation might be more apropos.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Israel is home to an economic elite that includes 18 billionaires who now control more than 25 percent of the companies listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. The average employee at Israel’s multinational high-tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco earns NIS 20,000 ($5,000) a month plus a handsome benefits package. Contrast that with the food packages that sustain many of Israel’s poorest citizens. Almost one in ten Israelis can’t afford to buy enough food and a full 20 percent of Israelis live below the official poverty line of NIS 2,900 ($725) a month for an individual and NIS 4,300 ($1,075) for a couple. Their world is not one of glittery high-tech offices and a BMW in the driveway but often of dingy apartments with exposed, rusty water pipes and malnourished children. The modern State of Israel was founded on socialist principals, bedrocks that were supposed to render negligible the gaps between rich and poor. History has shown socialism to be a failure, and Israel’s style of economic socialism fragmented in the mid-1980s amidst a collapse in the stock market, a currency crisis, and hyperinflation that peaked at 200 percent. The terms of an international bailout that forced Israel to rush the adoption of a free-market economy lifted some ships, but sank others. If the distribution of wealth in Israel is unbalanced, so is its poverty. While no one factor is exclusively to blame for poverty, the linkage between poverty to single-income families and low workforce participation — mainly due to cultural norms and personal choices — is too strong to be ignored. While nearly 70 percent of chareidi women work, only 45 percent of chareidi men have jobs. In the Arab sector, those figures are reversed; 75 percent of the men work but only 35 percent of Arab women do.  In those sectors, the Bank of Israel and Central Bureau of Statistics say some 52 percent of chareidim and over 40 percent of Arabs live under the poverty line. Contrast that with non-chareidi Jews. Some 85 percent of non-chareidi men and almost 80 percent of the women work, and among that population, the poverty rate is 11 percent. In Jewish families where both spouses work, poverty is a lean 5 percent. If all goes as planned, a new government will soon take power in Israel — one that has pledged to tackle economic inequality, unfairness, and monopoly-pricing. The government may vote to restore some of the cuts that gutted social programs over the past 15 years. But the days when a family with ten children could receive some NIS 6,500 a month in government benefits, a windfall that enabled many families to live a life devoted exclusively to spiritual pursuits, is not returning. With that scenario as the backdrop, we present a symposium featuring a handful of expert observers. We talked to them about the issues, challenges, obstacles, and possible solutions that could lift families out of poverty and create a fairer economic system, one in which chareidim could be on more even financial terms with their nonreligious counterparts.

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