ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at Western Wall
ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at Western WallReuters

The State of Israel has spent enormous effort and fortune over the last several years to increase the haredi presence in the workforce, and while it is a prevailing stereotype that haredim do not want to go to the office, leaders of start-up incubators and venture capitalists have noticed the opposite is true.

As demand outpaces the supply for haredi-geared business courses, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is part of the Ministry of Economy, has had to keep pace.

“For haredim, we've seen an increase in the amount of cases that have come before the EEOC," Tziona Koenig-Yair, the EEOC’s very first commissioner, told Arutz Sheva. “We did not see these appeals even five or six years ago.”

Besides the obvious public pressure from figures in the Knesset to get more haredim employed, there have been quieter efforts over the years by the government and the Ministry of Economy in particular to make this happen. There have been a number of grants made available by the Office of the Chief Scientist for one, which also is an office within the Economy Ministry.

“The government as a whole has put in resources to achieve the goal of increasing their employment,” says Koenig-Yair. “The EEOC works with them on discrimination: raising awareness of the commission and accepting complaints from citizens.”

The EEOC mission necessitates monitoring developments in Israel against certain groups in the workplace. What makes the haredi sector interesting for Koenig-Yair and the rest of the commission is that so much haredi employment is new. As a result, the statistics available for workplace discrimination – at least incidents of discrimination being reported by haredim – are fewer.

“In a very limited way, we don't have enough of those complaints,” explains Koenig-Yair, in that it is very difficult to assess if the growing number of haredi workers are facing any prejudice from management. While Koenig-Yair does not claim to be certain there is more discrimination than what has been reported, she feels that there is likely more discrimination in every sector because some people do not know they can report complaints anywhere.

“Haredi reports make up 6.3% of all the complaints we received last year. I clearly think that there is not enough awareness in the haredi sector to come to the EEOC.”

“Once you have more people at work, they will know their rights and be willing to assert themselves for those rights.”

That 6.3% figure is for the previous year. Prior to that, it was 4.7% of workplace complaints in Israel coming from haredim; the year before that 3.3%; before then 2.0%.

These numbers probably do not represent a significant increase in at-work discrimination toward haredim as much as they represent a greater awareness that workers have a place to complain when they do feel their rights as workers have been violated. Until awareness grows, an accurate picture of anti-haredi discrimination might be elusive.

Because of how young the commission is, a lot of effort is being made simply to raise awareness that it exists. There has been some contribution to the aforementioned start-up courses around the country specifically geared toward haredi Israelis, and even discussion of creating a business forum that will build networks and improve communication between the community and the commission.

When asked what she felt was the major difference between haredim and Israeli Arabs – who already have such a forum – she said it was simply a matter of fact that “Arabs have been in the workforce for a very long time and haredim are just now moving into it.”

“What we need for them right now is to get them into the workforce, keep them in the workforce and have the proper education to serve in the workforce.”

Koenig-Yair felt the need to address one idea that has been floated for years – to add haredim to a list of Israelis entitled to affirmative action (AA). In her mind the suggestion is somewhat misguided, at the least being a misunderstanding of how Israeli affirmative action works.

“I can’t say under any circumstances right now we need affirmative action. In the previous Knesset, MKs constantly proposed to add haredim to the list of groups approved for AA: women, Ethiopians, Arabs and Israelis with disabilities.”

The AA initiative is meant to address Israelis who regularly face discrimination in getting work. The issue here is that haredim are only now becoming a regular part of the workforce, so there is no legacy of job discrimination against haredim to demonstrate they indeed would need affirmative action.

“At this point, there is no need and no historical discrimination as a result,” says Koenig-Yair. Getting haredim into the workforce is a separate initiative from protecting them when they are there and preserving their equal access to employment opportunities. “It’s not the proper tool to get them into the workforce."