It is boom time for Israel’s strictly-Orthodox. Population boom, that is. New projections for 2059 – published today – predict that Israel’s Charedi population will number almost one million more than researchers expected just five years ago. In just over 40 years, almost one-in-three Israelis will be Charedi. Together with Arab Israelis, they will comprise half the population. The concern, therefore, is economic.
Currently, only half of Israel’s Charedi men work, and less than a third of Arab women are employed. This is self-evidently unsustainable. Such a small country cannot afford to support such large sections through welfare, as those who do work cannot support the rest through taxes.
The government’s own economists have said that within a generation, Israel will be trying – and failing – to support a ‘first world’ army with ‘third world’ productivity levels. And it is highly unlikely that the Jewish Diaspora will fund the difference.
What to do? The most obvious thing is to help get Charedi men and Arab women into work. It is not necessarily a cultural shift we need – contrary to popular myth, most Arab women want to work and organisations helping them do so have had some initial success.
Yet, while there is anecdotal success of encouraging strictly-Orthodox men into the workplace, employment levels are still very low in this sector, in part because of cultural resistance to higher (secular) education.
Cynics sneer that you can’t get a well-paying job in a thriving sector if they don’t know use computers, converse with the opposite sex, speak anything other than Yiddish and pray for much of the day.
The reality is much more subtle. Peak inside the Charedi community and you’ll see that once these young men finish yeshivah in their mid-20s, many are desperate to get training and a well-paid job to support their family.