Jerusalem – Chaim Amsellem was certainly not the first Parliament member to suggest that most ultra-Orthodox men should work rather than receive welfare subsidies for full-time Torah study. But when he did so last month, the nation took notice: He is a rabbi, ultra-Orthodox himself, whose outspokenness ignited a fresh, and fierce, debate about the rapid growth of the ultra-religious in Israel.
“Torah is the most important thing in the world,” Rabbi Amsellem said in an interview. But now more than 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel do not work, compared with 15 percent in the general population, and he argued that full-time, state-financed study should be reserved for great scholars destined to become rabbis or religious judges.
“Those who are not that way inclined,” he said, “should go out and earn a living.”
In reaction, he was ousted from his own ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, whose leaders vilified him with such venom that he was assigned a bodyguard. The party newspaper printed a special supplement describing Rabbi Amsellem as “Amalek,” the biblical embodiment of all evil.
The intensity of the attacks from his own ranks appeared to underscore their own fears about a growing backlash to the privileges and subsidies long granted to the ultra-religious. The issue is not just the hundreds of millions of dollars doled out annually for seminaries and child allowances. Worry – and anger – is deepening about whether Israel can survive economically if it continues to encourage a culture of not working.
Already, there are an increasing number of programs to prod the ultra-Orthodox to join the work force and to serve out the military duties required of all other Jewish Israelis. But critics say these are not enough: Rabbi Amsellem says what is needed is nothing less than “revolution.”
The ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as haredim, or those in awe of God, make up 10 percent of Israel’s population of 7.5 million, but are increasing rapidly. In addition to the men, more than 50 percent of haredi women do not work, compared with 21 percent among mainstream Jewish women. About 75 percent of Arab women do not work.
But while the Arab fertility rate has been dropping, the haredim still marry young and favor large families with eight children or more. Enrollment in ultra-Orthodox primary schools has increased by more than 50 percent over the last decade.
“We have a few years to get our act together,” warned Dan Ben-David, an economist and director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, an independent research institute.
“If not, there will be a point of no return.”
Several months ago the center issued a report that caused widespread alarm: If current trends continue, it said, 78 percent of primary school children in Israel by 2040 will be either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.
There are also signs of growing anger among mainstream Israelis: University students over the last weeks have blocked roads in protest of stipends amounting to $30 million a year for the eternal students of the kollels, which are seminaries for married men. They argued that they should receive similar benefits. The government agreed to limit the stipends, but only in five years.
Officials say that about 56 percent of ultra-Orthodox live below the poverty line. Most are dependent on welfare payments like income support, child allowances or married student stipends.
There are historical reasons most haredim in the modern state of Israel have chosen to remain in the seminaries, unlike their counterparts abroad, who combine Torah study with regular work. When the state was founded in 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, granted full-time yeshiva students state financing and exemption from army service to refill the ranks of Torah scholarship destroyed in the Holocaust.
Then, there were 400 students, 18 and older, of draftable age. Today, there are about 60,000. To qualify for exemption, the students must be enrolled in full-time study and not do paid work.
The Israeli government and military, along with some private groups, have worked for ways to bring more ultra-Orthodox into the workforce and the army, but have done so slowly and with extreme caution not to offend ultra-religious sensibilities.
More than 2,500 haredim and other religious soldiers have served in a combat battalion set up in the late 1990s for ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds.
About 1,000 haredim have served in Shahar, a special army program set up in late 2007 for ultra-Orthodox married men 22 to 27 years old, in which they are trained as technical staff members for the air force, navy, intelligence and other branches of the military. Shahar soldiers are able to go home every night and receive a family income from the government. Their two-year army stint then eases their way into the work force.
Such programs are intended to allow haredim to serve in the army without abandoning their way of life. The military provides strictly kosher food, allows the haredi soldiers to stay in groups, largely segregated from female soldiers, and allots them time for religious study and prayer.
At a recent Hanukkah concert for Shahar soldiers, held in a cultural center near Tel Aviv, men filled the main hall of the auditorium; their wives and crying babies were in the balcony above.
Chaim Dikman, 27, an officer who leads a haredi computer team in the air force and is one of 11 siblings, said he was the first in his family to serve. His own three children, he said, probably would not be welcome at some schools in the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement where he lives.
But, he added, “They might not have accepted them anyway on grounds that I am too ‘modern,’ ” even though he has no television or Internet access at home.
Treading carefully, in coordination with the rabbis, JDC-Israel, the Israel branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has pioneered programs like Shahar, provided professional training and set up employment centers for haredim.
Arnon Mantver, the group’s Israel director, said the haredim had gotten used to living frugally, often with help from charity. But then, he said, the expenses increase: “The kids grow up and marry and need housing.”
Seeking a way out of poverty, about 10,000 haredim have passed through the group’s programs over the last decade, and a few thousand are engaged in adult secular studies at special campuses.
The government is discussing prodding haredim to perform a year of community service as ambulance drivers, firefighters and the like, in lieu of military service, after which they would be free to join the work force.
“The government is putting a major emphasis on getting the haredim to go to work,” said Isaac Herzog, Israel’s minister of welfare and social services. “I see them as a major engine of the economy for the future, and we are seeing more and more change.”