What are you willing to give up for Haredi integration?

October 23, 2014

The following piece appeared today in Hebrew in Israel's Maariv.

There's a basic truth that’s easy for Israelis to forget: every choice in life comes with a price. More security means less of something else, perhaps education, perhaps health; and cheaper prices also mean less of something else, perhaps lower wages for the workers of certain companies; even simplifying bureaucracy has its price – less employment; and the lowering of housing prices has its price –  lowering the value of assets owned by ordinary Israeli citizens. Sometimes the price is worth paying; sometimes it isn’t. The important thing is to always remember not only what we want to achieve, but also the price that needs to be paid.

So here’s an interesting petition that represents the tension we just talked about, between the need to improve things and the price that has to be paid. This is the petition of a group of Israeli professors against the Council for Higher Education, the Minister of Education, and the Minister of Finance. The answer was supposed to be given this week, but a postponment was agreed upon and it will be submitted next week. That is, it’s still being formulated. And this is a petition that’s not easy to respond to. The petition’s main claim: Israel wants to make higher education more accessible to the Haredi sector, to help the integration of Haredis into the workforce. This is an important mission, absolutely vital according to some. But in order to achieve it, some steps are being taken which, according to the professors (and I believe they are right), severely hurt some basic principles of the State of Israel.

The petitioners say that the are “ardent supporters of making higher education accessible to the Haredi public”. But they demand that the process will not be one which hurts “the right to equality without discrimination based on race and gender, and without discrimination based on religious affiliation and ethnicity.“ More simply put: in order to “improve accessibility” to Haredis – according to the appealers, who also have some hard evidence the state will find it hard to deny – the state is taking problematic measures: it doesn’t let women give lectures to classes of men, it offers different programs for men and women, it segregates men and women and puts them in different classes on different floors. Additionally, the state allocates resources to Haredis which aren’t available to other sectors of the population. A “discriminatory” support system, they call it. I’m not sure what the state will argue in court, but many of the people familiar with the accessibility program are willing to admit a lot of the basic facts.

But the facts do not provide us with an answer – only with additional questions. First there’s a need to examine how necessary the discrimination is in order to achieve the goal. The petitioners state that there is “doubt about whether the practices discussed in the petition are needed in order to encourage the integration of Haredis into higher education.” If they are right – that is, if Haredi students will continue coming to class when they are required to listen to female lecturers, or to receive service from female secretaries, or to enter the campus gates with women, or to study on the same floor with female students – then of course there is no need for discrimination. The interesting question will arise if it turns out that the petitioners are wrong. What will happen, as some Haredis who are familiar with the subject have suggested to me, “if the petition will be accepted and the Haredis will not come”?

Here we have a classic goal vs. price question in all it’s force. It’s a difficult question to answer, and similar questions always arise whenever Haredi integration is discussed. Is Haredi integration into the IDF – a cause that the public supports enthusiastically – worth denying women soldiers and officers access to certain units? And if Haredi integration into the workforce is necessary, is Israeli society willing to pay for it with discrimination against female lecturers?

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