Despite being leaders in technology, many Israelis are struggling to make ends meet.
Hardly a week passes without proud references to Israel’s “startup nation” credentials. With a potent brew of smarts, capital, chutzpah, IDF active and reserve connections and daily-existence urgency, the Jewish state improves our health and nutrition, helps us navigate our roads, protects our physical and digital assets and, with the smallest of budgets, comes oh-so-close to joining the U.S., Russia and China as soft-landers on the moon.
There is much to admire. Yet, scratch the surface of Israel’s high-tech sector and you’ll find a country confronting a complex socioeconomic brew of haves and have nots; English speakers and non-English speakers; Jewish men and boys pursuing their dreams through the study of science, math and engineering and others through the full-time pursuit of Torah; beachfront high-rises and dirt-poor neighborhoods.
Data compiled in 2018 and recently shared in Detroit by the independent, nonpartisan Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel show that despite its global impact, Israel’s high-tech sector employs just more than 8% of the country’s workforce. Not surprisingly, people in this sector are high-wage earners who are overwhelmingly Caucasian, male, and most likely to have math/science educational backgrounds and very good English-language skills.
Utilizing comparative data from the 30 countries that collectively comprise the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Taub Center identifies trends that are eye-opening for Israel. With a population of 9 million (74 percent Jewish) and a current fertility rate of 3.11, Israel’s rate is the highest among all OECD countries — almost twice the average. Of note, the high fertility rate already takes into account the dramatic decline — from nine children in 1965 to three children today — in Israel’s Muslim birth rate.
Part of the shift in Israeli-Muslim household size may be explained by data showing the growing number of its women studying math and science, learning English and entering the workforce. Today, according to the Taub data, the Israeli-Arab population possesses more of the skills necessary to participate in the country’s high-tech economy — and reap its benefits — than the Haredi Jewish population.
The Taub data show that 62.2% of non-Haredi Jews and 36.9% of Israeli-Arabs possess good or very good English skills. This compares to 27% of Haredi Jews.
For Israeli-Arab girls studying in high school, 68% said their coursework includes math, 57% physics, 56% computer science and 56% electronics. In general, these numbers are about twice as high as the overall Jewish population, and substantially higher than the Haredi population. Further, the data show that about 3 percent of Haredi girls and 1% of Haredi boys are on high-tech education tracks.
The high cost of living in Israel places added pressure on the bulk of the population. According to the Taub Center data, prices in Israel are 14% higher than the average OECD country. They are 40% higher than the U.S. And with Israeli prices as the benchmark, only two countries — Chile and Latvia — are more expensive than Israel. Behind the startup nation curtain, 18.6% of Israeli households fall below the poverty rate. Among Israeli Arabs, the poverty rate is 49.4% and 45.1% among the Haredi Jewish population. It is 13.3% for non-Haredi Jews. When measured using disposable income, Israel’s poverty rate is the highest among all OECD countries.
None of these data detract from the miracle that is Israel, its high-tech savvy and its regional and global achievements under overwhelming external military, political and economic pressure. But caring about Israel’s future requires looking beyond the allure of “start-up nation” and remembering there are millions of ordinary Israelis from all walks of life who struggle daily to make ends meet in a high-cost, low-disposable income country.
The Israeli government must prioritize and address these fundamental disparities, equipping more of the current and future labor force with the educational and English-language skills needed to compete and succeed. Jews in the diaspora have an ongoing role to play, too. One notable example is the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Partnership2Gether achievement in teaching critical English language skills to thousands of children residing in the Central Galilee region.
With reliable data and trusted insights from the Taub Center, closing the gap between Israel’s haves and have nots is not rocket science — that’s reserved for moon shots. It will, however, require the same now-legendary focus and determination that are the underpinnings of “startup nation.”