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‘You Need 150 Salaries To Buy An Apartment – That’s Outrageous’: An Interview With Eyal Gabbai, Former Director-General of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office

Eyal Gabbai

Eyal Gabbai

You were quoted in the media last year as stating that haredim in Israel must join the army and labor force. Why do you feel so strongly about this?

When Menachem Begin allowed the vast majority of haredim to go to yeshiva instead of the army, they were less than five percent of the population. Today, they are growing and heading toward becoming 21 percent of the population by 2049. They do not serve in the army or participate in the economy. They rely heavily on social payments but do not provide resources in terms of taxes. So they just become a bigger and bigger burden on the overall Israeli economy.

I don’t think this situation is sustainable. Israel’s economy will suffer severely and the haredim will suffer even more economically than they are currently suffering. Their leaders are starting to understand this.

You headed an inter-ministerial committee last year that suggested capping support for young haredim studying in yeshivos at five years. What was the thinking behind this proposal, which the government subsequently adopted?

The number five came from the number of years it takes to obtain a BA and MA in Israel. We said, “Okay, the government supports students in universities for five years – this is the most – so we’re ready to discuss the same five-year mark in terms of haredim and yeshivos.”

Are there any exceptions for yeshiva students showing exceptional promise?

No. We said there might be a small group that will continue in yeshiva, but the leaders of the rabbinical world are not able, or willing, to test or rank yeshiva bachurim.

You talk of haredim joining the army in greater numbers. But if the government desires this development, shouldn’t it be more sensitive to their needs? Why, for example, were Orthodox soldiers recently forced to attend an army ceremony with a woman singing?

I think you’re right. We need to cater to their needs. On the other hand, the haredim cannot fully enforce their priorities and culture over the overall population and army. It costs money, and resources are needed.

Solutions like separate battalions, Nachal Haredi, are very important, and I think both the army and the haredim have found a way to work together. Unfortunately, though, it’s only being done in small numbers because they are not forced to leave the yeshivos.

You stepped down as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office in September. What are you doing now?

According to Israeli law, I am not allowed to work for Israeli companies for one year, so I’m actually waiting to finish that year. After that I’ll probably move to some kind of managing position in one of the bigger Israeli companies. Or, as I’ve done in the past, I’ll be involved in investing in the Israeli economy – probably with foreign investors because I think it’s important to bring more foreign investors to Israel. Currently, Israel offers higher rates of return than most of the western world. This is an opportunity that I think is very lucrative.

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