As soldiers in Israel’s army, one of the most grueling training regimens we had to endure was a long march while carrying a comrade on a stretcher. I’m reminded of those hikes today as the government works to ease the burden of the “national stretcher” on Israeli society, in which fewer and fewer citizens are carrying an ever-heavier load.
With extremely low labor participation, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli-Arab women have unfortunately slipped into a situation of welfare and poverty. For ultra-Orthodox men, it stems from a refusal to serve in the military and instead to sign up for religious study in yeshivas. For Arab women, it has been the lack of education and a culture in which they are expected to stay at home.
Already, just over a quarter of first graders in Israel are ultra-Orthodox. Israel will not be able to sustain itself if these children are not integrated into society and the labor market. Meanwhile, the secular and national religious camps — the backbone of the middle class — serve in the Israel Defense Forces, work and pay exorbitant taxes, reaching up to 50 percent of their income.
This situation must end.
My goal is to get ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women into the work force, to free them from the clutches of poverty, and to get the ultra-Orthodox to enlist in the I.D.F.
It’s true that Israel has a growing economy and impressive high-tech innovation. But it is time to recognize the mistakes that have led to the creation of two different economies and to take decisive action.
The Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, is currently debating whether to take a historic step by passing legislation that would pave the way for ultra-Orthodox men to join the work force and serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
I am aware of the political obstacles. Ultra-Orthodox politicians and rabbis are opposed to the implementation of this plan and are using all of their political influence to prevent us from succeeding.
I have also paid a personal price. Historically, the National Religious Party, which my party — Jewish Home — is built upon, has aligned itself in consecutive Israeli governments with the ultra-Orthodox factions.
By joining a government without ultra-Orthodox representation, we have become the target for their ongoing attacks, with some of my fellow party members having been heckled and harassed at public events.
Under the bill, all ultra-Orthodox men would eventually be put on the same path as secular and national religious men — one of military service and employment.
Over the next four years, they would be granted a grace period to pursue their personal ambitions. They would be allowed to continue studying in a yeshiva if they wished or to enlist in the military and join the work force.
I expect they will choose the latter since they have the best incentive: avoiding poverty.
This could do wonders for the economy. After receiving vocational training and education, this new source of talent would flow into Israel’s work force in a way that has not been seen since the huge post-Soviet immigration of the 1990s, when some one million people immigrated to Israel.
Like the integration of the ultra-Orthodox, bringing Israeli-Arab women into the labor market is also a major priority.
The employment rate for Arab women in Israel is currently extremely low: just over 25 percent. My goal is to double it within the next five years.
We are establishing 21 one-stop employment shops where Arab women from over 60 towns will be able to receive vocational training, small business loans and general business guidance.
We are subsidizing day care so young mothers can go to work and we are, in some cases, even helping companies that hire Arab women by subsidizing up to 37 percent of the women’s salaries for over two years. This will allow employers, who until now were reluctant to hire Arab women, to provide these women with the opportunity to work and support their families.
The Israeli government has already established a fund to encourage young Arab women, specifically from the Bedouin community, to study engineering. We are funding their university studies and providing them with mentors who assist them with their studies and the job placement process.
Transforming the labor market will not be easy. There is prejudice against both the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab community. Many of the Arab women live far away from main cities where the jobs are; and, in many cases, husbands prefer that their wives stay at home.
But the Israeli economy belongs to both its Jewish and Arab citizens and the status quo simply cannot continue.
Beyond easing the burden and spreading prosperity, these new initiatives will have a greater and more profound impact on Israel’s national identity.
In my previous career as a chief executive of high-tech companies, I experienced firsthand the endless possibilities when people from diverse backgrounds work together. They get to know one another and quickly learn that they share more in common than they originally thought. Just imagine the new Israeli workplace: Arab men and women sitting together with secular, ultra-Orthodox and national-religious Jewish men and women all focused on the same objective — advancing our economy and our country.
Differences, which until then seemed insurmountable, would gradually disappear.
In the army, the one thing that kept us going during those long “stretcher hikes” was the knowledge that, while they might be hard, we would eventually reach our destination.
The Israeli economy is embarking on an uphill journey. And if all sectors of society pull together, we will succeed.
Naftali Bennett is the Israeli economy minister and chairman of the Jewish Home party.