Child Allowance and the Future of Zionism


Child Allowance and the Future of Zionism

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University


Between 1980 and 2000 there was only one population sector in the entire world whose birth rate actually increased: ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. The reason? The Likud government back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, headed by Menachem Begin, changed Israel’s Social Security (Bituakh Leumi) law and started increasing the amount of child allowance paid out for each child above a certain minimum. Simple economic logic dictates that costs for each successive child in a family should decrease per capita in the family — clothes can be hand-me-down, economies of scale in food purchases, etc. But the nationalist Likud government wished to provide strong incentives for Jewish birth as well as keeping the ultra-Orthodox happy within the coalition.

The results have been economically debilitating for the country as a whole and in particular for the ultra-Orthodox themselves. As most ultra-Orthodox (called “Haredim”) males do not work because they study Torah as their “livelihood” — in large part to enable the continuation of their army draft deferment — Israel has one of the lowest employees-to-population ratios in the industrialized world. The economy (production, tax base, etc.) suffers as a result. The Haredim have also found this to be a burden. In a country where newlyweds must immediately buy an apartment (1/3 wedding gift respectively from each family and 1/3 mortgage), having 8 children and within 20 years 64 grandchildren has proved an intolerable burden for non-working Haredim. Their house of cards (loans, overseas charity, etc.) has come crashing down.

But the macro and micro-economic ramifications are only  half the story. The longer term problem is that at present rates of fertility, the Haredim (today about 8 children per family) and the Israeli Arabs (4.5 per family) — the only two major anti-Zionist (or at least, non-Zionist) groups in Israel — will constitute in a few decades about half of the country’s entire population! Already today, 50% of all first grade pupils in Israel are either Haredim or Israeli-Arabs. 

This is a very touchy issue and when it is raised lots of people cry “racism”. But this has nothing to do with “ethnicity” or “race” — it has everything to do with retaining the underlying raison d’etre for establishing the Jewish State in the first place as a haven for displaced Jews around the world and as a place that Jews can express themselves culturally in a relatively free and democratic framework. Haredim, of course, are very Jewish but their definition of “Jewish State” is the antithesis of “democracy”; Israeli Arabs don’t even accept the concept of “Jewish State” in any form.

What is to be done? In 2002, then Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu drastically cut the Child Allowance for successive children. The Haredim cried foul (much louder than other poor Jewish sectors who were somewhat harmed by this), but he stuck to his guns — not only for economic reasons but (perhaps especially) for Zionist reasons. Recently, Tzippi Livni (no less a Zionist) also refused to bow to Haredi demands and because of this was unable to form a government which is why we are having elections in February 2009. 

With everything else on Israel’s plate — nuclearizing Iran, peace process with the Palestinians and perhaps also with Syria, dealing with the economic tidal wave sweeping the world — it might seem almost frivolous to have governments rise and fall on the issue of “Child Allowances”. But for Israel, it has become a matter of long-term Zionist life or death. Despite the fact that in most other religion and state matters the chasm between the Haredim and secular Israelis has actually narrowed over time, the real “battle” in the long term is demographic. It seems that Zionists across the board have placed a line in the sand. It will be interesting to see whether the Haredi demographic tidal wave will abate as a result.

Dec. 9, 2008


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