Welfare battles in the U.S. usually focus on government social safety net programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance and Medicaid. Conservatives complain that the government transfers their hard-earned tax money to people allegedly unwilling to work, and many claim we should leave it to the church rather than the state to assist the truly needy. So it’s no coincidence that our poorest states are mainly in the Bible Belt.
Most Americans will agree that work should be available for everyone, that we should encourage self-reliance, and that we should discourage potentially productive citizens from living entirely off government programs for their entire lives. But, as usual, the God is in the details.
Speaking of God, or the lack thereof, Israel is one of the most secular countries in the world and it provides significant welfare benefits to its citizens. So why do I and probably all other atheists think there is a major flaw in the Israeli welfare system? The problem started in 1949, when the first chief rabbi of Israel persuaded Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to exempt a very limited number of ultra-Orthodox students from military service so they could study full time in yeshivas. The rationale was that tens of thousands of students in Europe had been wiped out during the Holocaust, and some of the best surviving scholars should be released from military obligations and given financial assistance in order to continue their religious studies.
That temporary solution became permanent, and the original handful of full-time students grew to 60,000 in 2012. Even the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) acknowledge that not all are fine scholars, but they insist on continued military exemptions and generous taxpayer subsidies for all who wish to devote their lives to Torah study. As a consequence, graduates from these religious schools have received the equivalent of zero to four years of secular education, while secular work force participation among Haredi men is only about 40 percent. These Haredim currently make up about nine percent of the population, but may receive half the country’s total welfare payments. To make matters worse, the situation is rapidly becoming even more unsustainable because of astronomical fertility rates in these impoverished and ghettoized religious communities, while the more affluent Israeli secular Jews aren’t bound by a “be fruitful and multiply” theology.
Nonetheless, some of the “liberals” in the ultra-Orthodox community are attempting to share the burden of citizenship, but not without strong opposition from their peers. Haredi who volunteer for military service are often verbally abused, spit on and humiliated while walking through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.