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High-tech in the service of the rabbis

March 3, 2008. Haaretz: Avirama Golan

Journalists are repeatedly invited on guided and photographed tours to admire ultra-Orthodox women who work for high-tech firms. The preferred site: the Matrix Talpiot project, which employs about 400 women and is looking for more. Matrix receives most of the attention, but it is not the only one. Many firms - including Israel Aerospace Industries, which employs the women via a manpower agency - quickly understood that it was worth their while to employ ultra-Orthodox women.

All the firms are pleased with the arrangement and are considering expanding it. They explain that these women are cheaper and more obedient than Indians, and more accessible and reliable than East Europeans. Ultra-Orthodox women, they all report, do not waste time chatting, surfing the Internet or drinking coffee. For NIS 5,000 or less per month, they work diligently from 7 A.M. to 4 P.M., under a contract that does not include pay for overtime.

An excellent deal. Particularly for the Talpiot project, located in Kiryat Sefer (Modi'in Ilit), which was founded on the other side of the Green Line in the early 1990s in order to provide cheap housing for the impoverished ultra-Orthodox community, and quickly became both the third-largest religious community in Israel and the leader in the poverty rankings. Thus Matrix received cheap real estate on lands confiscated from Palestinian villages, low property taxes and a large number of job seekers. Another prize: For each ultra-Orthodox woman employee, the government gives Matrix NIS 1,000 a month.

There is a reason for this government involvement. Having declared that it would make a serious effort to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the economy, the government reduced child allowances - which, according to the prevailing theory in the Finance Ministry, encourage large families - and transferred NIS 10 million to the "dignified livelihood" project in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment, which promotes education and job training for yeshiva students. As opposed to the ultra-Orthodox in the United States, about 80 percent of whom have a post-high school education and work, here, they lack education and appropriate training for the job market. Hundreds study in nongovernmental institutions such as the ultra-Orthodox campus in Kiryat Ono or Machon Lev. Some have found jobs (80 percent of them women).

These steps were supposed to bring about a change in the ultra-Orthodox "community of learners," which has reached degrees of poverty and dependence that are dangerous to it and to the country. But the government carried them out only with one hand, while with the other, it shook hands with the rabbis, thereby causing its own efforts to fail in a manner that arouses suspicions that it never intended to succeed in the first place.

Granted, the rabbis ordered the promotion of training for high-tech, the introduction of engineering courses in the seminaries, and even computer and mathematics courses in the elementary schools. But these are for girls only. At a meeting of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee in February 2005, a representative of Matrix promised: "We will also have an initiative for men if the rabbis approve." However, he added, "at the moment, they haven't approved it. Only for women."

Not only have they not approved it, but they have since appointed supervisors in all the firms to ensure that the women do not mix with men, eat only in the separate kitchens set up for them and do not sit idle. "We are working in complete cooperation with the rabbis," say the employers with great pleasure.

What a brilliant idea: The rabbis, who have consistently rejected initiatives to enable men to combine study and work, have found in high-tech a new channel to rehabilitate the collapsing society of Torah learners, via an old and familiar method: the oppression of women. The men will once again sit in the kollel (a yeshiva for married men), the women will once again work, and instead of technological education providing them with a key for change, it will deepen their exploitation. Without any difficulty, the rabbis concocted a circular deal with the employers and the government that is giving them twice as much as what the government cut.

Yet the government still insists on claiming the "return" of ultra-Orthodox women to the work force as an achievement. What return? After all, ultra-Orthodox women have long been supporting their families. The only innovation is that, thanks to their cooperation with the finance and industry ministries, the rabbis are entrenching their power and expanding their control over women's lives to the office as well.

And the women? Who is asking them? "Three months a year," said an engineer in one of the firms, "they are absent [on maternity leave], and they return like clockwork. They asked the rabbis if it was permitted to go out for a few minutes to pray, and they were reprimanded and told that it wasn't. Nor are they allowed to rest for a moment for fear of 'stealing' [their employers' time], and they do not argue or complain. Only once in a while they do they go out - to a special room to pump breast milk for the baby. At 4:30 I see them waiting, exhausted, for the bus to Bnei Brak. My heart goes out to them."

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