“The State let the haredim do what they want. They can’t suddenly butt in and penalize them for it.” Eli Paley, publisher of the most popular haredi weekly magazine and real estate developer, is convinced the State is trying to wash its hands of the haredim.
Eli, tell us about yourself.
I’m fifty years old, father of six. I live in Jerusalem and I’m the publisher of Mishpacha, the most popular haredi weekly magazine, which has an annual turnover of approximately 50 million NIS. I’m also a real estate developer. Presently I’m establishing the Center for the Study of Haredi Society, which researches and produces position papers regarding the haredi sector. I studied at Chevron Yeshiva, the “Oxford” of the yeshiva world.
Weren’t you supposed to stay there forever?
Torah study is the love of my life. I wanted to continue learning, but by the late 80’s my father, Rabbi Yehuda Paley, founded the [Mishpacha] newspaper and I was offered to be its distributor. Back then I had a Sussita car, and it was a great student job. It was the first time I encountered the problem of haredim and the army. Because I had not yet served in the army, the only way I could work concurrently with my studies was to register my salary under my wife’s name.
In other words, you pulled a fast one.
I had no choice. This is an example of the monster we’ve created, which is now impossible to deal with: a young haredi who learns nine hours a day in Kollel but wants to earn a living in his spare time – the law doesn’t enable him to do so. The State is telling the haredim, “if you don’t serve in the army, you’ll remain poor.” Yeshiva students have vacation [a total of] three months out of the year, during which they can go to demonstrations and throw stones or get lost in the Judean Desert, but they can’t start supporting themselves or acquire a profession?! The State has created an impossible situation. We need to separate the issue of army service – which is a great challenge in itself – and employment.
The haredi community has quite an impact on the State’s leadership. Most years they were in the coalition. Why haven’t they solved this problem?
The haredi leadership has not dealt with this issue. It sought to ensure that anyone who wants to learn can do so, and so other issues, such as how this situation affects things at a macro level and what options are available to those who wish to make a living, have been neglected.
Yair Lapid boasts of the Equality of the Burden Law he passed, which includes a sh’nat hachra’ah [lit. “year of decision,” during which yeshiva students can defer army service with no penalty] during which it is possible to work. Didn’t this solve the problem?
It’s two steps forward, one step back. What’s the purpose of a sh’nat hachra’ah? So long as your primary occupation is Torah study, you can obtain an education and make a living on the side. For sixty years we thought that cracking the whip by not enabling haredim to obtain a regular job would drag them to the army. It didn’t work, and look what a heavy economic price we’ve paid for this folly. Perhaps haredi politicians also found it convenient to leave the situation as is.
What effect did the Lapid-Bennett alliance have on haredi army service?
It’s been nothing but harmful. It’s created a certain image in haredi circles whereby anyone who wears an army uniform is being defiant, and this is a result of Lapid’s incitement. In the last decade we have witnessed changes and there are now special tracks adapted to haredim. There is no way they are going to succeed in recruiting haredim to the IDF during their critical years of study in yeshiva, no matter how many sanctions they will impose. There is a haredi ethos at play here, and that will not change; it’s not for negotiation. This is true even among haredim overseas. Young men will spend their prime years studying at the best yeshivos, even when a lucrative career is calling. On the other hand, the army has opened the Shahar program [IDF tracks for haredi integration that include professional training for future employment]. The army recognized what will work for the haredi sector and developed appropriate frameworks designed for married men after they’ve spent several years studying in yeshiva. The Shahar program is a fantastic model, and Lapid did not ask himself even for a moment how to promote it.
Why is there a shortage of haredim who can work and study Torah in their spare time?
That is the great challenge of the haredi community in Israel. We haven’t yet developed the model of married people at a later stage who leave the beis medrash but keep Torah learning as a central value in their lives. Overseas it’s more common. People get up at 4:00 AM to learn with a chavrusa and only after do they tend to business. In Hassidic circles in Israel there are batei medrash with evening programs as well.
The employment rate among haredi men is much lower relative to the general population.
I think the rate of haredi men working is 70%. There are discrepancies in the data, and some work off the books or hold religious positions. There are also many blue-collar haredi workers, such as truck drivers or couriers. The problem is there still aren’t enough haredim working in white-collar jobs with a higher income. But in recent years we have undergone a process of change and there are now 6,000 haredim with academic qualifications.
What are the core values of the haredi community?
The core value of haredim, in Israel and abroad, is that Torah is the central and only value. The litmus test of a haredi is whether in the years his children are formally educated their main focus is learning Torah. Even a haredi businessman overseas sends his children to yeshiva. My boys learned in Maarava, which offers full bagrut [matriculation] studies, but the main part of the curriculum is Gemara. On the other hand, the national-religious sector has values which are no less important, like Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael and that’s why a lot of confusion has been created.
Bottom line, what does the State have to do in order to increase the number of haredim in the workforce? In the end it boils down to the question of core subjects and training for the job market.
The State needs to think long term and identify potential pitfalls and possibilities. The last thing it should do is impose the core curriculum. The haredi educational system has its own culture and characteristics. There is a demand for core subjects and we need to find solutions for this – for example, funding initiatives for teaching core subjects in after-school programs at community centers. Socially I am right-wing. I think the State should have a laissez-faire approach and not tell me how to educate [my children]. But it can give funding to entrepreneurs in order to establish educational frameworks for teaching science, math and English. There are now groups of children who study the core subjects in the afternoons. There is demand for another ten such groups but no one is willing to fund them. The previous education minister, Shai Piron, wanted to stop the transfer of funds to haredi schools that don’t teach the core curriculum. Had he succeeded, he would have made families even poorer, because they would have to pay higher tuition. This creates a certain antagonism, that the “State is against us.”
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