Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Travails of the "Ultra-Orthodox"

Stories have been floating around the international media about various outrages attributed to Haredim or "ultra-orthodox" Jews in Jerusalem and other cities.   These include forced segregation of men and women on buses, efforts to keep women off the sidewalk (I'm not making this up), and so forth.   Most recently, in the town of Bet Shemesh, an 8-year old girl was verbally assaulted because she wore immodest clothing.

This kind of stuff is obviously unacceptable and has been rightly condemned.   However, I am concerned that such behavior, which involves a relatively small portion of Orthodox and even Haredi Jews, is being used as an excuse for a more general anti-Haredi prejudice that I think unfortunate.   Specifically, I question how much of this behavior is really "religious" as opposed to economic and social in origin.

Israel provides draft exemptions for Haredi men who are "studying" in approved institutions.   The Government likewise provides economic subsidies for young families that become larger as they have more children.   These policies, originally designed to benefit a few hundred scholars, now benefit tens or even hundreds of thousands.

Not surprisingly, when you provide a large number of people with powerful incentives to do nothing, nothing is precisely what they will do.   (Many of the "students," like those in Italian universities of the 1970s and 1980s, appear to do relatively little studying.)   More precisely, young men who are unemployed for extended periods will tend do what young men always do in such circumstances: make babies and get into political trouble.   The particular kind of trouble they get into will of course depend on circumstances: perpetual students in the US or Western Europe tend to drift into leftist politics and (perhaps) avoid pregnancy by means of birth control or abortion, while those in the Haredi communtiy are more likely to be right-wing and have children.   But the basic phenomenon is much the same.

If Israel wishes to solve this problem, it needs to change its incentive system and begin integrating Haredim (and especially Haredi men) into the economy and, eventually, the armed forces or other national service.    A model for this is, ironically enough, provided by the US, where the equivalent populations is economically productive and generally speaking well-behaved.   (When did you ever hear of someone trying to segregate a public bus in New York?)   Arguing about religious "extremism" is understandable but beside the point.    The devil, or the yetzer ha'ra, finds work for idle hands, and it doesn't much matter if they're Jewish or not.