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Love and Work: the Changing Face of Israeli Society

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Jewish ultra-orthodox wedding, Israel. Photo MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

Sigmund Freud said there are only two things human beings need to be happy: love and work. Both are undergoing major changes in Israel amid demographic and religious shifts.

Marriages in Israel were historically performed under laws drafted during the Ottoman Empire, which state that each religious community has jurisdiction over its own marriages. This continued through the British Mandate, and in 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel, the status quo was maintained.

As a result, marriages are performed through a religious authority, i.e. the Chief Rabbinate. This means an increasing number of Israelis – 660,000 according to Hiddush, a religious pluralism lobby group – cannot marry. Gay couples, interfaith couples and Jewish converts do not have a civil alternative.

While Israeli secular courts have strong judicial recognition of common law marriage such as same-sex marriage or interfaith marriage, there is a growing mistrust in the Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and divorce. Consequently, there is increasing public support for civil marriage, including from the religious quarter.

The number of couples wishing to marry outside the Rabbinate’s authority is increasing.  There is widespread disgust at political ‘horse trading’ at the expense of freedom of marriage. Since the Orthodox parties are essential to build a coalition in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), they manipulate the ruling party by haggling for budgets for their schools and power over the Rabbinate. Rather than preserving Orthodox Judaism, this is serving to erode secular support for the Rabbinate, which is deemed antiquated and discriminatory. However, the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah have a two-vote majority in the Knesset, so the status quo is unlikely to change anytime soon.

According to a March 2017 survey conducted by the Rafi Smith Polling Institute for Hiddush, more than 64 per cent of Jewish Israelis support civil marriage and the recognition of gay marriage. More people are flying abroad to marry or are marrying outside the Rabbinate and distancing themselves from the conservative stream. Even more people are choosing to ignore the restrictions of the Rabbinate, which was once a respected authority.

“I recall the contentious debates before my wedding … Should we marry abroad or under the Rabbinate restrictions?” Naava Mashiah told Fanack. “In the end we married in Israel under Rabbinate rules, and we had to go through many requirements which were alien to a secular Israeli couple, such as the woman being purified in a mikveh [ritual bath] and the couple attending a family-values seminar. We ‘went through the motions’ in order to be able to have the wedding in Israel in the presence of our friends.”

Another area where changes are happening rapidly to fit a new Israeli reality is the ultra-Orthodox community’s inclusion in the workforce. The government is eager to reduce unemployment, which could hinder the country’s long-term growth prospects. Due to an aging population and expanding Orthodox minority, there will be too few Israelis in employment to support pensioners and the vulnerable in society if the current trend continues. The Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 10.6 per cent of the population was over 65 in 2014, and that the elderly population will double be 2023 . The Orthodox community is expected to grow from 11 per cent to 18 per cent of the population by the same year.

Traditionally, ultra-Orthodox men are exempted from employment and military service in order to focus on their religious studies. They receive a stipend for their contribution to preserving Jewish heritage. With the exponential growth of the Orthodox community, however, this economic formula is becoming unsustainable. According to Bank of Israel statistics, employment among Orthodox men has risen from 40 per cent to 50 per cent since 2001.  Ultra-orthodox women are better integrated, with their employment levels rising from below 50 per cent in 2001 to close to 70 per cent, above the OECD average of 60 per cent.

The Ministry of Economy has spent millions of shekels on helping Orthodox Jews to find jobs. Efforts include providing maths, science and English lessons, which they did not receive in Yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish college). The ministry also offers work placements and training.

Israel has reached a glass ceiling in recruiting skilled labour, particularly for the high-tech industry, which has been an important growth engine for the country, and tapping into the ultra-Orthodox community is viewed as a way forward. KamaTech, for instance, an NGO and start-up accelerator, integrates ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs into the Israeli high-tech industry. Its events have been taking place since 2013 and provides participants with a 20,000 shekel ($5,500) training grant. The results are impressive: from the previous group of start-ups raised within KamaTech, seven out of eight managed to raise an average of 1 million shekels and together employ more than 100 people.

It seems that demographic circumstances are forcing Israel’s various sectors to adjust to a new reality, whether this is the Rabbinate’s waning influence or ultra-Orthodox Jews joining the workforce. These practical facts have put pressure on the status quo, and advocacy groups and NGOs have sprung up to ensure these trends are entrenched permanently.