By Steven Scheer
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday offered ultra-Orthodox men an incentive to join the workforce by halving the hours spent in religious study in return for the same state stipend, although the plan was condemned by community leaders.
Around half of ultra-Orthodox men work, with the rest studying for 40 hours a week in seminaries – a practice dating back to the formation of the state of Israel when they were allowed to forego work and military service as their population was small.
But the Bank of Israel and economic leaders have warned of long-term strains on the budget if they are not integrated into the workforce – especially with the ultra-Orthodox population forecast to grow from 12.6% last year to 32% by 2065.
For much of 12 years prior to the formation of the new government in June, two ultra-Orthodox parties provided support to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, effectively preventing any change.
But now, ultra-Orthodox parties are in the opposition, providing staunch secularist Lieberman an opportunity to act.
Under his plan, Lieberman – who has long believed ultra-Orthodox men should earn a living not based on handouts – said he would cut the hours men spend studying to 20, while still giving them the same state stipend.
“This will allow them to go to work,” he said.
Lieberman has already proposed requiring both parents being employed to receive state subsidies for child daycare.
Many ultra-Orthodox families are large, and are often supported by women, of which 78% hold jobs.
Lieberman was convening the economic cabinet for the first time since the government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was formed, also focusing on the rising cost of living.
Lieberman has often clashed with ultra-Orthodox leaders and lawmakers. Moshe Gafni, who heads one such party, responded to his plan by calling him a “big fool”, while others said the minister did not care about their wellbeing.
Lieberman said he wanted to help ultra-Orthodox children, in contrast to their leadership “who want to keep them in poverty”.
Community rights and support organisations have suggested the low wages some ultra-Orthodox men could command would be an obstacle as they have never studied English, maths and science – unlike the women – and call for training and more opportunities.
But they say many are keen to join the workforce, especially in the technology companies Israel has pioneered.
(Reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Alison Williams)