The Unfortunate Demise of the “Society of Learners” and It’s Threat to The Jewish Community

For more than 70 years, we have been witnesses to the modern miracle that is the State of Israel. The aim of its founders was to build a state that would serve as both a refuge and a homeland for the Jewish people. In this effort, they achieved unimaginable success. Today Israel is a leader amongst the nations in realms of technology, military, entrepreneurship and economy. It is a diverse and vibrant democracy with the potential to reach greater heights of achievement and success. With all these factors taken into consideration, Israel, while powerful and thriving, is today under unprecedented threat. This danger, unlike external security threats which garner the majority of mainstream media attention, is a purely internal one. If not addressed immediately, Jewish Statehood as envisioned by its founders and the global Jewish community at large will be at great risk. The problem we have in mind is the lack of Haredi participation in the Israeli economy, and the deterioration of the “Society of Learners”.

In 1949, David Ben Gurion, reached an arrangement with the then small Haredi community living in the young state. 400 students whose “Torah is their occupation”, were granted an exemption from military service, but only on condition that they remained in full-time Torah study and refrained from gainful employment. This “covenant” set the political and legal foundation for what we know of as the “Society of Learners,” a situation unique to Israel whereby religious study takes precedence over other socio-economic functions such as gainful employment and civil service. In 1981, as part of the 10th Knesset coalition agreement, then Prime Minister Menachem Begin removed many limitations on public funding for Yeshivot and military exemptions for Yeshiva and Kollel students in Israel. At the time, these agreements were politically expedient for the ruling coalition, but they did not come without a price tag. Over time, as demographic trends changed and Haredi society grew to significant proportions, the covenant between the state and the Haredi society led to a deterioration in Haredi-Secular relations. Today, the outdated “Society of Learners” status quo, which de facto means that most Haredi men refrain from any type of gainful employment, threatens the very sustainability and survival of both of the Jewish State and the Haredi Community.

Present-day Haredi society in Israel is vastly different from the one Ben Gurion concluded his arrangement with in 1949. The most recognizable difference is in sheer scale. Today, there are roughly 1.2 million Haredi Jews making up approximately 12 percent of the population of the State of Israel, a figure that has tripled since 1980. Standing alone, this figure does not denote any negative trend. However, there are over 90,000 Haredi males in Israel today between the ages of 25-64 who are not gainfully employed, at a rate of over 50%. Research conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute estimates the total cost of Haredi sub-employment to Israel at roughly NIS 30 billion, or approximately 2.5% of Israel’s GDP. Given the current demographic trajectory, we have calculated that this figure will reach some 6.15% of the GDP by the year 2035. From an economic standpoint, not only is the current path fundamentally unsustainable, but it will also lead to a range of disastrous socio-economic consequences. According to a study commissioned by the Kiyum Initiative, an Israel that maintains this untenable status quo will reach economic parity (in terms of GDP per capita) with countries such as Turkey and Hungary in the coming decades. As Omer Moav, a leading Israeli economist, recently wrote, “Given that the Haredi population doubles every 16 years, Israel will simply not be able to continue flourishing over time; this is set to happen in our lifetimes.”

The numbers paint a bleak picture and tell us a straightforward message: the status quo is simply unsustainable for both the State of Israel and for Haredi society. While relevant for all of us, the message is particularly pertinent for well-meaning philanthropists who fund the religious institutions in Israel. With all respect to such institutions, the “big picture” of Israel’s future cannot be ignored. So what is the way forward?

Shlomo Naeh, Professor of Talmud and Halakha at Hebrew University, writes: “Since the days of the Babylonian Talmud, the Jewish People have understood that someone who is studying fulltime will find it difficult to do other things. But the choice of whom to support was selective – those who studied Torah were the gifted students, the geniuses, the scholars, not a whole community. The Israeli model in which any individual in the Ultra-Orthodox community is eligible for support has no precedent.” The “learning society” model, as Naeh states, is relatively new, a uniquely Israeli phenomenon that came about due to political expediency and short sightedness, alongside philanthropic goodwill lacking careful analysis of the potential impacts and future side effects. As Naeh concludes, “The situation is a tragic one and created an internal trap in the leaning community and perpetuates poverty and weakness.” But there is a way forward. It is clear that without a vibrant and successful Haredi community, Israel will not be able to maintain its unique Jewish identity. At the same time, the sustainability of the Haredi world will be jeopardized if it remains economically dependent on the proportionally dwindling secular population. The answer is self-reliance. The Haredi population should not have to rely on the secular community and philanthropists abroad to finance its studies and lifestyle. On the contrary, those who wish to support their own families should be given the opportunity to do so. As quoted in the Shulhan Aruch itself, “A man should always keep himself from needing charity and should endure any anguish, not to be in need of his fellow man … and even a respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man.” Today, the ones paying the price for Haredi financial dependency are members of the Haredi community themselves – the growth of the non-employed Kollel population has reached such critical levels that the overall community has become impoverished. One does not have to look much further than Israel’s geopolitical rivals, Turkey and Iran, to see what happens when a nation contains a large and impoverished clerical class. We certainly do not mean to belittle the value of Torah study for the Jewish People; we are for Torah study, not against it. Yet, we do wish to highlight that circumstances have radically changed, and that these changes demand a shift in policy and strategy. Once all sides (government, civil society, and private philanthropists) have accepted the basic need to change the status quo, we can start transitioning Israel and Haredi society from the “Society of Learners” welfare model, to a more robust and dynamic “Society of Learners and Workers,” where members can pursue their religious lifestyle while simultaneously providing themselves and their families with a dignified income if they so choose. Such an outcome would undoubtedly result in a stronger and more sustainable Haredi community, Israel, and Jewish People.