A long run view of Israel's recent elections

Shoresh Institution policy brief: post-election analysis

Last week, Prof. Ben David published a policy brief titled 'Two Wars and Demography: A Long Run View of Israel’s Recent Elections'. Its importance cannot be over-exaggerated. We can only express the hope that leaders and policymakers will take the time to study it carefully.

Many view the clash of religion & state in Israel as bickering "in the family" between secular and religious; between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. They occasionally react with annoyance when confrontations peak; in instances of grand corruption; when individuals are put through an extreme, unjust grinding by the rabbinical court system; when anger is enflamed over the mass dodging of military service by yeshiva students; etc. Occasionally, when there’s a record high allocation for ultra-Orthodox schools or some other unique privileges are extracted from state coffers, this hits the headlines and causes a momentary indignation.

All this perpetuates the political mindset, which assumes that no serious harm will come to the political operators from the right, the center, and the left - all of whom claim to be Zionists, committed to democracy, and to have nothing but the country's best interests at heart. Such a claim, when they make the deals with the ultra-Orthodox parties that put them in power, and which make possible the above mentioned concessions and many others, which all result in violations of civil liberties, human dignity, gender equality, and religious freedom, as well as the alienation and distancing of much of world Jewry!

Prof. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University is one of the beacons of light who has consistently attempted to remind us with solid research and alarming conclusions that this doesn't stop at religious coercion, nor at disenfranchising non-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy. Rather, he explains, it puts at risk the future economic viability of the State of Israel, distorts its order of priorities, and pushes it down the ladder on many social and educational counts in comparison to other developed nations. For a number of years Prof. Ben-David headed the important Taub Center for social and economic research. More recently, he founded and heads the SHORESH research institute.

Last week, Prof. Ben David published a policy brief titled 'Two Wars and Demography: A Long Run View of Israel’s Recent Elections'. Its importance cannot be over-exaggerated. We can only express the hope that leaders and policymakers will take the time to study it carefully.

The following are sample insights and data that Prof. Ben David offers:

  • Among other things, he refers to the political watershed of 1977 when Begin and the Likud ascended to power: "Creation of the new government in 1977 not only involved the rise of the primarily right-wing Likud party over the largely left-wing Labor party, it also signaled a tectonic shift to the right by Israel’s religious Jews. The primary representative of the country’s religious non-Haredi Jews, the Mafdal party (which was the forerunner of today’s Jewish Home party) moved strongly rightward, away from its long-standing partnership with Labor into an alliance – continuing to this day – with the Likud. Further enabling the Likud’s rise to power in 1977 was the decision of the Haredi party, Agudat Israel, to join a government for the first time in history.
  • The presence of the religious and Haredi parties in successive Israeli governments helped propel the shift in national priorities. Major expenditures in the West Bank, Golan, Sinai and Gaza (Israel has since left the latter two) were accompanied by substantial transfers of funds to Haredi interests ranging from increases in welfare assistance to subsidization of Haredi schools that prevent education in core curriculum subjects beyond eighth grade to the fastest growing – by far – population group in Israel.
  • While fertility rates in all other population groups fell sharply (Muslims and Druze) or slightly (non-Haredi Jews and Christians), Haredi fertility rates rose by a full child. The average number of children per Haredi woman increased from 6.05 in 1980 to 7.07 children by 1990 (Hleihel, 2018). Haredi fertility rates reached 7.42 children per woman a decade later, in 2000, before leveling off. At the same time, employment rates among prime working age (35-54 year old) Haredi men plunged from over 80% in the late 1970s to under 40% in the early 2000s.
  • The major intifada-related recession of the early 2000s led to massive cuts in welfare benefits that forced many poorly educated Israelis to enter the labor force for the first time (Ben-David 2016). Employment rates among the least educated – among them, Haredim – rose in the aftermath of the cuts.
  • As Israel emerged from its serious recession, there has been a partial rebound in welfare benefits. Consequently, Haredi fertility rates, which had fallen to fewer than seven children per woman, have been rising steadily over the past decade, recently surpassing the seven child mark once again. Employment among Haredi men also stopped rising after 2015, and has even begun to decline recently (Central Bureau of Statistics 2019). Inundation of the labor market with poorly educated persons has taken its toll on Israel’s economy. Labor productivity (defined as GDP per hour worked) in Israel is among the lowest in the developed world.
  • With the steadily rising gap in labor productivity having an impact on what Israelis could earn in the leading developed countries relative to what they earn in Israel, and having an increasingly heavy direct tax burden placed on their shoulders, it should come as no surprise that a rising number of educated and skilled Israelis are leaving the country – only hastening an already evolving demographic process. For every Israeli academic returning to Israel in 2014, over two and a half academics emigrated (Ben-David, 2019 – forthcoming). By 2017, this number had risen to over four and a half academics leaving for every one that returned.
  • Of the Haredim’s many ultimatums for joining a coalition, probably none is more foreboding for the future of Israel than the demand that their children – primarily the boys – be deprived of their basic right to a core education that could enable them to have occupational options as adults. No other developed country allows such a violation of its mandatory education requirements. If the current political environment provides extremely limited options, one can only imagine how constricted the political possibilities will be when today’s children become adults. As if this were not enough, demographic projections by the Central Bureau of Statistics forecast that in just two generations, nearly one-half of Israel’s children will be Haredim.
  • Many Israelis tend to downplay the seriousness of the looming risks. They point to the growing exposure of the Haredim to the outside world that Haredi leaders are so desperately trying to limit. The swelling ranks of Haredim seeking a higher education provide an oft-cited example of increasing awareness among them for the need of an education. Haredi leaders claim that the rigorous Yeshiva training allows boys to circumvent the standard educational process of receiving an adequate core education as children. This claim flies directly in the face of empirical evidence.
  • There are no shortcuts in life. When a Haredi boy does not learn any science or English whatsoever, while even the most rudimentary math and other core education is terminated after eighth grade, then the vast majority have no chance at ever reaching the types of positions so fundamental for the existence of a modern economy. Thus, while the number of Haredim studying towards an academic degree has risen from 4,000 in 2009 to just under 10,000 in recent years, extremely high dropout rates have ensued. As a result, the share of prime working age Haredi men actually receiving a degree – even from the very low quality colleges that most attend – has remained unchanged since the early 2000s (among women, there has been a slight increase in recent years). In the United States, where Haredim are not allowed to deprive their children of a core curriculum, the 25% share of Haredi adults with an academic degree is over twice the 12% rate in Israel.

Coinciding with Ben David's publication, though unknown to him as he wrote his analysis, was the publication last week of the State Comptroller annual report, which included a particularly scathing criticism of the colossal failure of the state to advance higher education among Haredim. The report both further validates Prof. Ben David's analysis and data; and it underscores the gravity of the situation, as well as the need to use much more than a grain of salt when hearing or reading comforting reports coming from official government spokespeople (or Haredi leadership) when they do their share of planting disinformation and rosy projections of progress made and the nearing of the hoped for transformation.

Among other things, according to the Times of Israel, the State Comptroller said:

For every 100 ultra-Orthodox men who walk onto a college campus tailored for their community in pursuit of an undergraduate degree, 76 will walk away long before graduation.

Since 2011, the Israeli government has invested over NIS 550 million ($153 million) and earmarked over NIS 1.1 billion ($306 million) more through 2022 for academic programs for the ultra-Orthodox community, in a blitz designed to integrate Haredim into the Israeli workforce.

The cash boost precipitated the rapid establishment of dozens of tracks of study for ultra-Orthodox men and women across the country, largely in gender-segregated settings, many of which were formed as offshoots of universities and private colleges.

But while the number of ultra-Orthodox students in college programs has nearly doubled in eight years, three-quarters of men, and over half of women, quit before obtaining their degrees, according to the ombudsman report, which underlined a series of failings.

Most students enrolled in these institutions, ombudsman Yosef Shapira said, are women pursuing studies in education, despite a surplus of teachers in the job market that has pushed an overwhelming majority of trained educators (among Haredim, 86%) to ultimately seek employment in other fields.

Moreover, he charged, the Council of Higher Education has neglected examining the curricula taught in these schools to ensure it meets national academic standards.

In explaining the harsh reality, the Comptroller also puts a major part of the blame on the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox leadership to teach their sons core curricular studies. This was highlighted by Ben-David above and repeatedly emphasized by all of Israel's leading economists, as not only the key deficiency of Haredi education in Israel but also as the single most threatening danger to Israel's future economic well-being.

The Haredi political leadership angrily brushed off this criticism, claiming that the high quality rabbinic training that yeshiva students undergo sharpens their minds to the point that their skills are compatible and often better than those who have been reared on secular education. If the need arises to complement their rabbinic studies with the missing secular information, they can do it rapidly and successfully. Needless to say this rhetoric, which has been embraced by Israeli politicians who refrain from enforcing core curricular studies in Haredi schools, has been proven to hold no water. The same is true for the repeated rebuke heard from Haredim and partnering politicians alike that pressure and enforcement will not succeed, and that only voluntary and "carrot-oriented" stimulants are necessary and provide the desired dramatic progress. What we see, in effect, is huge waste of public resources, lost years, and hardly any progress of substance.

For a number of years now, Hiddush has been demanding fuller disclosure of the facts than the authorities were inclined to provide, primarily through a series of “Freedom of Information” motions. This has enabled us to uncover the fictitious nature of the State’s supervision of the requirement to teach core curricular studies and the fining system, which actually encourages breaches of this obligation. Also, we have demanded and received information about standardized testing, which has only been carried out on a small scale in Sephardic schools, but even this has manifested in the dismal results of their male students in math and reading comprehension. Other fields of standardized fields they refused to participate in altogether, especially the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox school system.

Ben David's final words sum it up well for us too: "The country’s future depends on a willingness among that majority who voted for the two large parties to start working together, to begin focusing on the big picture and on the collective future." This is not only Ben David's urging as an economist and researcher. It is also the clear will of the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, as Hiddush has demonstrated in its post-election survey... but will Israel's politicians listen?

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