Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Integrate the ultra-Orthodox

MK Yochanan Plessner

"The events in Beit Shemesh are not representative of the ultra-Orthodox community at large; the perpetrators are only a handful of radical thugs."

This common refrain is used by various ultra-Orthodox spokespeople who try to play down the significance of acts that humiliate women. Unfortunately, reality is not that forgiving and has continued to offer up events that remind us this phenomenon runs deep. This week, when a group of moshavniks [people living in a agricultural cooperative] went on a tour of menorahs in Jerusalem, things turned ugly: Residents of the city's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods hurled insults and rocks at them, and also spat on them. One of the people on the tour, who had served in the IDF elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, said the incident reminded him of the riots he faced in Nablus' city center during the Intifada. Sadly this event was not exceptional, and that is why I had my daughters opt out of a similar menorah tour they were scheduled to attend.

There is nothing new in such violence. However, the demographic growth and geographic expansion of the ultra-Orthodox community have fostered a new reality, one that brings such incidents closer to every Israeli home. The ultra-Orthodox have cemented their position as a central component in Israel's social fabric. About one-quarter of all first graders are ultra-Orthodox and live in mixed Haredi-secular cities like Jerusalem, Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Tiberias, Safed and Lod.

This demographic and geographic growth is likely to continue, so we have no choice but to ensure that the principles of equality are applied across the board in our public spaces.

Offsetting the troubling trend of discrimination should not be limited to increased law enforcement; it must also rely on a coordinated government policy that aims to increasingly incorporate the ultra-Orthodox into the education system, public service sector and workforce.

Only real integration can temper this radicalization and provide a tailwind to moderate leaders within the ultra-Orthodox community. But in Israel's current political reality, an orderly agenda to have them join the workforce is nowhere to be found.

Rather than integrating the Haredi community into the army and the workplace, we have witnessed a drastic budgetary increase for yeshivas and kollels [institutions for Torah study attended by married men]; this inhibits Haredi youths' integration into the modern economy. The idea of offering the ultra-Orthodox incentives to join the workforce – say by conditioning housing subsidies on "realizing their earning power" as Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg has proposed – has fallen by the wayside because of political pressures.

As long as we do not change course and integrate the ultra-Orthodox community into the nation's service sector and workforce, the trend of radicalization is likely to continue.

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