Sukkot and the housing shortage

As the whole country is abuzz with the sound of sukkot being built, it’s a shame that the government doesn’t take a lesson from it all. And by “it’s a shame” I mean, it’s shameful. Why? Because the issue that kicked off this summer’s nationwide protest movement is the crushing cost of housing, and because sukkah building provides a clue to solving it.

Consider this: Building my family’s sukkah only takes an hour. Granted, it’s only 6 square meters. But to build a sukkah four times that size would only require another 30 minutes. With help, I could build a sukkah large enough to seat everyone in my apartment building in less time than it takes the pizza place to deliver a couple large pies.

How is this possible? Modular construction. The materials are light, strong, uniform and long-lasting. Construction is so simple that it requires no more than a rubber mallet and a step stool. Beyond sukkah building, though, modular construction is used in only a small percentage of Israeli housing and commercial construction.

Of course, building sturdy apartments is a much tougher matter than building sukkot. But Israeli construction companies make it tougher than it needs to be. Contractors may blame the slow work of municipal inspectors and other factors beyond their control, but the fact is that the contractors just aren’t very efficient.

Honestly, I’m not very good with a hammer — but I know what’s possible. I grew up in South Florida during the construction boom of the 1980s, when entire shopping malls were erected within a few months. Here, by contrast, the construction of small, uncomplicated buildings can drag on for years. It doesn’t take the producers of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, who manage to build enormous, ultra-modern homes in just a single week (the length of the Sukkot holiday!) to tell you how unnecessary that is. What’s worse is that this snail’s pace of construction costs every one of us — renters and homeowners alike — unfathomable sums.

Using modular construction and other modern, cost-saving techniques would reduce building costs by cutting down on materials, labor and clean-up — significant savings in time and money that would make the cost of housing much, much less of the burden that it is now.

The protest tents that captured the country’s attention all summer have come down, but the housing crunch is as strong as ever. As the government contemplates ways of lowering the cost of living, let’s hope they see the potential brilliance of the simple sukkah.


A working model

An upstart program gives the hopelessly unemployed the tools – and the motivation – to find rewarding careers

In their down time, the unemployed play charades. They laugh, they mingle, they pour each other coffee. But they also dress in formal office attire and carry with them copious notes from their latest meetings. After all, just because they don’t have professions doesn’t mean they can’t be professional.

Their coffee break over, a group of participants in the latest STRIVE employment program file into a classroom to simulate a confrontation with an employer. Miri, a tall and plump woman in her late 20s, plays a nurse who has administered the wrong medication to a child in her care.

“How could you have made such a grievous error?!” barks an instructor, playing the role of the supervisor in a scolding via telephone. Miri refuses to admit her mistake and demands a face-to-face meeting to review the evidence, as her “boss” becomes increasingly agitated. A two-week suspension had been in the cards – and, the boss hints, avoidable had Miri handled this correctly – but now she is a whisker away from an outright dismissal.

After a heated exchange, the instructor steps out of character and turns to the class, asking, “How could Miri have done that better?”

Miri and her classmates have been in this kind of situation before – and usually come out of it badly. The goal of today’s class is to learn how to communicate in a manner that reflects responsibility and character, and to learn as well how to defuse an explosive workplace situation or prevent one altogether. Some of the students need to learn how to defend themselves without becoming defensive. Others need to learn how to stand up for themselves. And others are still working on not simply giving up and walking away from a job that will feed their families.

“What we’re trying to do is to get people to stop saying, ‘The system screwed me’ and start taking control of their lives,” explains Naomi Krieger, STRIVE’s general manager.

That ethos couldn’t come at a better time, as the country is in the midst of an alarming rise in unemployment. Now hovering around 8%, with more than a quarter-million Israelis already out of work, joblessness is at its highest point in three years.

“Unemployment will continue to rise… there are still difficult times ahead of us,” Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said in late July. “I am optimistic about the Israeli economy,” Fischer continued, “but we shouldn’t exaggerate. We will need to cope with the problem of unemployment.”

The big question, of course, is how to do that. And with it comes the question of whether the government can complete the mission on its own. Most of the government’s efforts thus far – mainly, in derivations of the so-called Wisconsin Plan – have met with only meager success. So meager, in fact, that an 18 percent job placement rate has been considered cause for celebration. To put that in perspective, STRIVE claims a job placement rate of roughly 75 percent.

“The government has never had a holistic view of employment,” Yossi Tamir cautions.

He ought to know: a professor of social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former directory-general of the National Insurance Institute, Tamir headed the government committee upon whose recommendations the Wisconsin-based Mehalev program was founded. He is also currently the executive director of TEVET, the Joint Distribution Committee’s array of employment initiatives of which STRIVE is a part.

“The establishment of [Mehalev] sprung from a need to address an alarming increase in the number of people who were receiving guaranteed income payments,” Tamir says from the JDC’s Jerusalem office. “It was clear that doling out money wasn’t solving the poverty problem.”

The issue that Mehalev was supposed to fix, Tamir explains, was not unemployment per se, but unemployment by choice. Israel, Tamir notes, has the lowest rate of participation in the workforce in the Western world.

Cultural norms account for much of that, as many haredi men choose advanced Torah study over work, and many Arab women continue to serve in their traditional role in the home. A minimum wage that is too low in comparison to the benefits handed out to the jobless by the government is another cause. Indeed, Mehalev brought a significant reduction in those numbers, as thousands of people who had been receiving support checks while simultaneously working for pay “under the table” were forced to give up the dole.

On the score of getting more people to work, though, Mehalev has been a disappointment. For STRIVE to succeed, it would have to be different from Mehalev. And it is – very much so.

To begin with, there are nuts-and-bolts differences in the programs. For example, Mehalev aims to place people in jobs as soon as possible and clear their files from the government’s welfare caseload. By contrast, STRIVE’s work is still in its early stages by the time subjects are placed in jobs; at that point, there’s still more than two years of personal and professional development to go.

At least as important, though, is the psychological element that permeates the STRIVE concept and makes it unique. Beyond preparation for work, STRIVE officials say, the unemployed need motivation for work. The cases they are dealing with are people who have been out of work for long periods – some for years, and some even as third-generation recipients of welfare payments.

“One of the exercises we do with our participants is to ask: ‘If you could receive NIS 8,000 per month for the rest of your life, on the condition that you never work a single day, would you?’ At first, some say, ‘Of course!’ But then, when we ask what they would suggest their kids respond to the same question, they become very insistent that their children work to support themselves. The idea is to instill the sense that there is a value to working,” says Krieger.

In addition to the value of work, STRIVE students are given something most people take for granted: the hope and belief that they can accomplish their goals through hard work. It may seem simple, but for these people, it is absolutely transformative.

At the STRIVE offices in Jerusalem, Michal talks of her own transformation.

Before, says the slender 20-year-old, “I had a dream.” Then, after a pause, she adds, “but that’s all it was.”

The dream, she explains, was to start her own cosmetics line. What was holding her back was a stifling insecurity.

“I married young, had children and stayed at home, on the couch,” she says. “I allowed myself to be bullied and made to feel inferior. STRIVE gave me a direction. And it really got my head together.”

STRIVE’s introductory month of classes and workshops follows a rigid 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule, with no excuses for being late or absent and no childcare option. The discipline and resourcefulness required to make it through the course, Michal says, were exactly what she needed.

Now working regularly at the cosmetics desk in a branch of the Super-Pharm chain, Michal is back to dreaming of starting her own cosmetics line – but now she views her work shifts as time spent learning the business from the inside. She’s not merely working, she’s investing in herself. The empowerment is immense.

“I don’t give in so easily anymore,” she says, beaming. “I even got divorced and took control of myself. It’s like I got an extra dose of smarts!”

Even more enthusiastic is Avi, a 30-year-old who bounced around in yeshivot and kollelim until starting a STRIVE course a few months ago. Lacking drive and lacking a sense of self-worth, Avi saw himself foundering.

It was his sister, though, who gave Avi the impetus to apply to STRIVE. She had just completed the initial course and “couldn’t stop talking about it,” he says. “The whole family saw how dramatically she changed. I thought it would be good for me, too.”

Even before STRIVE helped Avi find a job, he says, it helped him become a better father.

“In class I learned how to be an attentive listener, and how to develop confidence. I applied the lessons at home, listening to my children more and encouraging them to have more confidence in themselves,” he says with pride.

Avi is actually so enthusiastic that he is practically leaping out of his chair.

“The idea that I can do things, that I can try something new and maybe even succeed at it, is such a revelation,” he says. “Before, I was afraid to do anything, to try anything. Now my only fear is that this [positive] feeling will fade.”

Avi works at a travel agency that specializes in trips to Uman, where Rabbi Nahman of Braslov is buried. He, too, treats his job as a starting point rather than an end, though, and has already set his sights on opening a business of his own. He eagerly soaks up the “Ofek” (horizon) continuing education classes that STRIVE offers participants fortnightly, and hopes to one day come back to STRIVE to teach others how to succeed.

“Why not?” he asks. For Avi, anything is possible.

Dudu remembers the way he was just a few short months ago – sitting at home, dejected, without the desire to work anymore, having lost faith in his ability to hold down a job that would support himself, his wife and his two little girls.

At 36, he says grimly, and with no sense of hyperbole, “all was lost.”

Then he saw an ad in the newspaper for a STRIVE course and decided to give working one last shot.

“Now,” he says, beaming, “I’m happy to say that I’ve been working in the customer service department of Office Depot for the past three months. My smile says it all.”

For years, Dudu says, he struggled to figure out where he wanted to go in life. Now he hopes to study for a bachelor’s degree.

The power of the lessons he has learned in the STRIVE program, Dudu says, is so great that “soon, this will be like the psychometric exam. It’ll be an obligatory course.”

CLEARLY, STRIVE participants are benefiting. But what about their employers?

Meir Shalim, the deputy CEO for human resources at customer service company

Kishurit, is always happy to hire STRIVE graduates.

“Every month we take on new graduates, and we already have four or five cases of people who have come in from STRIVE who are now in senior positions with us. More than once our employee of the month has been a STRIVE graduate,” Shalim says. “They come in and hit the ground running with a lot of motivation.”

Kishurit currently employs nearly two dozen STRIVE graduates. Some have progressed from entry-level jobs to become shift managers or even supervisors. For a company that handles as many as 30,000 phone calls per day, that translates to a lot of responsibility.

“We make sure to give them positive feedback, to make sure they have all they need,” Shalim says. “You have to make sure to address their fears and concerns in returning to work after so long. We don’t pressure them in terms of time and such. We prefer to focus on learning the ropes and developing skills. It works.”


“These folks come in with twice as much desire to succeed as all the ‘regular’ workers.

They’re just so much more productive. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Danny Diamant, head of public relations for Mehashvim, which markets information systems to businesses and professionals, says his company has also been pleasantly surprised by the STRIVE graduates it has hired.

“Some have been here for a few years already, and are now leaders in sales. That’s significant, because it’s not easy to make it here. But there’s no group that has sent workers who have succeeded more than the STRIVE graduates have. As far as we’re concerned, it’s great.”

STRIVE makes a “win-win” pitch to businesses: pay no fee for finding workers, as they would have to do when working with manpower agencies, and get workers who are already trained and highly motivated. In return, the organization can sometimes convince employers to waive requirements that an employee hold an academic degree.

THE STRIVE program, which lasts two-and-a-half years, goes way beyond Miri’s class and job placement. Sure, the standard components of usual employment programs are in place – learning how to write a CV, how to make a good impression in a job interview, how to search for jobs, etc. – but what makes STRIVE unique, officials say, is its overarching focus on cultivating a positive attitude and the motivation to turn any job into a successful career.

Everything at STRIVE is meant to reinforce the lesson of, well, striving. The offices of the downtown Jerusalem branch, bright, colorful, inviting and modern, are the total opposite of the drab and dreary look of government employment offices. In fact, they could be mistaken for a PR firm. All the doors are glass – intentionally, Krieger says, to create the impression of transparency.

STRIVE opened its doors first in Tel Aviv, and then spread to Haifa and Jerusalem. The program was adapted from an initiative of the same name in Harlem, New York, founded 25 years ago by a former convict-turned-social worker and successful social activist.

The Israeli version focuses on the sectors of the population hit hardest by chronic unemployment – haredim, Arab women, immigrants from Ethiopia and the Caucasus, and the handicapped – and challenges them to turn their lives around.

“These are people who have had it rough for a long, long time. When they get the phone call telling them they’ve been accepted to the program, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve ever been accepted to anything,” Krieger says.

Each group has its own unique stigmas to overcome, she adds. For example, she tells the story of a haredi young woman at a STRIVE-sponsored barbecue in Gan Sacher. A counselor who noticed the woman standing off to the side, clearly uncomfortable about mingling, reassured the young woman: “Don’t worry, I’ll personally make sure you get a good shidduch.”

Whatever the reason, STRIVE is making great strides – of some 30,000 participants in the program at the three offices across the country, Tamir says, more than 20,000 have found work.

Tamir, though, says there is still much that can be done.

“Where we have failed, in my view, is in advancing workers,” he says with a sigh.

In Israel, he notes, the number of people working in minimum wage jobs is twice as high as in Europe and North America. One of the reasons for that, he adds, is that “too many mayors of small towns and local councils want industrial parks, but they don’t want to train residents for jobs in them,” so the bulk of jobs that could help depressed peripheral areas remain in the metropolises.

To help the most amount of people the fastest, STRIVE has focused on the big cities, but Tamir says he would like to expand the program to Beersheba and the Tiberias-Beit She’an area soon.

Tamir wants to help the people who have been passed over by successive governments. And while the government funds half of the STRIVE program, the outsiders’ success may be lighting a fire under the authorities to pick up the pace in their own work.

At the end of the summer, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer announced an ambitious 10-year, NIS 1.75 billion plan to get 135,000 haredim, Arabs and handicapped to join the workforce.

“We are taking steps to remove obstacles related to education and professional training, transportation difficulties and discrimination,” he said.

If he wants suggestions on how to accomplish those grandiose goals, the minister will find a willing adviser in the newly enterprising Avi.

“There are two things everyone should do in life,” he says with a sly smile. “Visit Uman, and STRIVE.”

‘From the heart’ – but with a new mindset

Retooling the government’s Mehalev program has made it more efficient and less cruel at the same time

Bari Bar-Zion has heard all about the flaws of the government’s Mehalev (“from the heart”) program to move people from welfare to work. He knows quite well how bad things were when the program first got up and running – how people were forced to travel hours from their homes to attend meetings that did not, in the end, help them find work; how people were dropped from the welfare rolls as soon as they were placed in jobs, even if those jobs proved to be exploitative and short-lived, etc.

Bar-Zion was working in the Finance Ministry then, dealing with the economic mess of chronic unemployment. Like his colleagues, Bar-Zion was concerned by the disproportionate rise in welfare recipients that the government had come to finance. And like Eli Yishai of Shas, then industry, trade and labor minister, Bar-Zion felt that various strict and inflexible requirements made the Mehalev program “successful but cruel” and, ultimately, not as helpful as it could have been.

Changes that Yishai put in place have taken hold now, with demands that the companies operating the Mehalev program help participants find jobs that earn more money, prove that participants are indeed working, and ensure that they find work for the long term (at least 12 out of 15 months). Now CEO of Amin, the Mehalev franchisee for Jerusalem and the surrounding area, Bar-Zion oversees an operation that is run more efficiently – and, he says, more humanely – in helping people find meaningful employment.

Walking around Amin’s offices in downtown Jerusalem, Bar-Zion proudly points out the systematic path that participants follow, a detailed step-by-step process that guides them from the moment they walk through the door to the moment they head off to their new jobs.

“Each participant gets a personal plan,” he says, striding from the reception hall to the offices where social workers, job counselors and in-house National Insurance Institute representatives prepare participants for work.

“We run a tight ship here,” Bar-Zion says with pride. “Within three days of walking through our doors, new participants begin an orientation course that includes an intake process, visits with counselors, examination boards and the construction of a personalized program.”

Amin teaches participants a range of skills for getting, and then holding onto, jobs. It also provides babysitting and even dental care, Bar-Zion says, so that participants can concentrate on the task at hand.

“Looking for work is a full-time job,” he says.

While looking for work, participants continue to receive their NII benefits. And once they start working, they become eligible to receive financial grants from the government upon reaching various milestones on the job. They also continue to receive guidance from Amin counselors – in any of 14 different languages.

Amin is a combination of Action4Employment, a British company, and Aman, an Israeli consulting company that runs several government projects. Since 2005, it has received 14,000 case referrals from the NII. About 1 in 3 has been placed in a job, Bar-Zion says.

Some are on display, as it were. The security guard at the front door was a participant three years ago; he has been working at Amin for the past 18 months. Another security guard also came to Amin as a participant.

Most participants, Bar-Zion says with a laugh, actually find work outside Amin.

Unfortunately, about half of those who do find jobs work only part-time, and usually in low-paying jobs. Many of those who do not find work, it turns out, were receiving NII benefits even though they didn’t need or deserve them. In such cases, Bar-Zion says, Amin “fails” to make a job placement but succeeds in cutting down on fraud.

One of Bar-Zion’s employees updates him on a disciplinary hearing for a “frequent flier” who, since 2006, has rejected every job placement suggested to her. This is precisely the kind of person the government has tried to remove from the dole, the kind who abuses the system to siphon public funds into her bank account for nothing.

It’s actually very difficult for Amin to take away such a person’s NII benefits, Bar-Zion explains, thanks to the much-increased oversight of the companies operating the Mehalev programs. The panel that heard the case of the “frequent flier” was an external, government-appointed one, and social action watchdog groups meet regularly with Amin representatives to see that participants are given fair treatment.

Real progress in fighting unemployment (and welfare fraud, too, for that matter) still comes down to making job placements, though, and no one at Amin makes more job placements than Osama Shanan. A Druse who drives into the capital from Hurfeish, in the Galilee, each week, Shanan routinely places more than a dozen people per month in jobs. It’s easy to see why: the man is practically on fire, he’s so enthused.

“I believe in what I do. I feel like I’m doing community service,” says Shanan, a former investigator for the NII who spent four years checking to see whether welfare claims from east Jerusalem Arabs were legitimate.

“Thank God, I’ve helped a lot of families. I’ve seen what drugs, domestic violence, even prostitution can do to people. So many people come in here broken. If we can get them to work and to smile again,” he says, “then nothing is impossible.”

Shanan has heard all the excuses, and seen all the hardships that go with years of unemployment.

“Politics do play a part,” he says. “People say, ‘The occupation owes me.’”

But Shanan, who served in the IDF, does not relent.

“I have to look women in the eye and tell them that, no matter how they feel, no one is going to simply come in and give them money for their children. I spend a lot of time explaining how important it is to maintain their family’s dignity by working. I tell them it’s a mitzvah to work to support their children.”

He is always careful, he says, to get the message across that gainful employment comes when the participant wants it, not when it is forced on him.

“I constantly tell people, ‘Don’t work for my sake, work for yourself!’”

Shanan’s enthusiasm clearly rubs off on the people he counsels. One, a young Arab man, beams as Bar-Zion walks by.

“For years, no one ever told me to go get a job and make something of myself,” he says. “Now, Osama has me raring to go!”

Shanan appreciates the young man’s newfound passion, but he knows that real change comes with time.

“Just today, a new participant came in and started telling me that he wanted to work,” Shanan says. “I stopped him and asked if he really wanted to work. Because lots of people say they want to work, but then they start giving you conditions – I won’t do this, I won’t accept that, etc. He said it didn’t matter, he just wanted to work. So I arranged a placement for him at a factory in Atarot, right then and there.”

Leaning back in his chair, Shanan gives a prolonged shrug of his shoulders.

“We’ll see,” he says. “We’ll see!”

No ‘poultry’ matter

turkeys-on-a-farmIn Dubi Lang’s and Yudke Friedman’s ideal world, every red-blooded Israeli would be obsessed with breasts. Turkey breasts, that is.

Lang and Friedman are the chief economist and the chief veterinarian, respectively, for Ramit, part of the conglomerate that effectively controls 80 percent of the poultry market in Israel. And while the situation at Ramit isn’t nearly as bad, for example, as it is at Off Ha’emek – the chicken slaughterhouse in Galilee that has made headlines in recent days for teetering on the brink of collapse thanks to millions of shekels in debts that the faltering business can’t repay – they aren’t encouraging, either. The turkey industry in general, according to Ramit CEO Boaz Shkedy, is facing “an unprecedented crisis.”

The trouble is a combination of the global recession and the local factors that make the Israeli market unique.

For years, Israel has led the world in per-capita consumption of turkey meat. The contest hasn’t even been close. Whereas Israelis consume an average of more than 20 kg. of turkey meat per year, the next-highest consumers, Americans, eat just under 8 kg. per person. The same goes for turkey as a percentage of poultry consumed: Here, the figure is more than 20 percent, while in the US that figure stands at roughly 15%, and in Europe it is only about 5%.

That the US would rank so high is not surprising, given that North America is the turkey’s place of origin. The custom of serving a whole turkey for Thanksgiving (and, for some, on Christmas as well) also accounts for a significant amount of annual sales. No other country or region can match that demand.

So it is surprising that Israel outranks America, given that it is all but free of those winter holiday turkey-eating customs (except, of course, for the small number of American immigrants who preserve their Thanksgiving culinary tradition with special orders for whole turkeys) and the bird had to be imported to, well, take off here.

The explanation for the enigma is manifold. A dearth of grazing land relegates cattle raising to just a small business; the majority of beef consumed is raised and slaughtered overseas, mostly in South America. Fish is commonly consumed, but not as much as meat, by weight. And since pork consumption is extremely low in this Jewish and Muslim country, poultry dominates the meat-eater’s chart.

There’s something else, though, that makes our consumption of turkey meat peculiar: We eat the dark meat. Whereas elsewhere the part of the turkey most likely to find its way to the plate is the breast, here it is the fattier red meat portions that are most often consumed. It is also “hidden,” in the sense that it appears not as steaks or as strips, like chicken, but primarily as deli meat or as shwarma. The turkey business has soared here, then, thanks to pastrami sandwiches and the ubiquitous shwarma stands that dot every bus station and busy street.

“We eat turkey all the time, not just around holidays, but we’re also one of the few places in the world where we eat turkey in pieces,” Friedman explains. “Because we eat the dark meat to such a high degree, there is less of a premium on the white meat of the breast – which is why we export so much of the breasts. Generally speaking, we export the breasts to Europe. [Israel exported 3,000 tons of turkey breast meat to the EU in 2005.] So, now there is a crisis because the global economic downturn means less exporting.”

“And when the export falls, the price of breast meat domestically falls, because there’s more supply in the market. So the economic damage comes in both directions,” adds Lang.

SO, SINCE the Israeli market relies overwhelmingly on the red-meat parts of the bird, there is now too much “white” turkey meat in the domestic market. This drop in demand from Europe hits especially hard, too, because breast meat makes up the largest portion of the weight of turkey products that are consumed. And those turkey breasts are extra large.

“Because we don’t put a whole bird in the oven, our turkeys are larger than the average American turkey,” Friedman explains.

Turkeys have been bred to be so big that the males – some as massive as 30 kilos, Friedman says – can no longer mate successfully, and fertilization must be done in vitro. “In the wild,” the veterinarian notes, “male turkeys only grow to about 5 kilos. Here they are slaughtered at 17 kilos and beyond, well into the 20-kilo range.”

That time is quickly approaching for some 7,500 birds at David Hilman’s farm in Ein Irron, where he has been raising turkeys since 1993. At 16 weeks, the birds weigh about 17 kg each. Adding about a kilo a week, they’re close to the weight of 18-20 kilos they’ll reach before being sent to slaughter for a glatt kosher food company.

Ironically situated between a cemetery and the Nirvana plant nursery, Hilman’s turkeys congregate in their enclosure in a field of blossoming peach trees. He comes to check on them several times a day, making sure they’re getting enough food and water to keep growing apace.

Dressed in a white full-body jumpsuit and rubber boots, Hilman enters the enclosure and is greeted with a raucous round of “singing” from the birds. “Gobble, gobble” doesn’t do justice to the calls, which are more of an exuberant “gerugadurgle-durgle-durgle!” While the serenade is nice, Hilman’s focus is on checking the turkeys for signs of illness or injury.

“They’ll fight each other,” he says. “They’re cannibals, just like us!”

Hilman is counting on his diligence, and his luck, seeing him through this uncertain period. He has already had the good fortune that, when bird flu struck flocks here three years ago, his farm was outside the infection radius.

That was just one of two blows that smacked the poultry industry in 2006, with the bird flu outbreak costing the poultry industry more than NIS 10 million in losses due to forced culls. (“Actually, we were very fortunate to have gotten hold of that situation pretty quickly,” Lang says.) There was also a final decision in the High Court of Justice to enforce a ban on force-feeding geese, shutting down a NIS 150 million foie gras industry that was the third-largest in the world.

Israeli attempts to establish markets for more exotic birds, such as ostrich and quail, have met with only limited success, so the turkey is not alone in facing difficulties. More to the point, the broiler chicken continues to pull ahead as the undisputed poultry king, “and it’s like that all over the world,” Friedman says.

So what can turkey farmers do to ensure their product’s survival?

The Egg and Poultry Board is betting on better marketing, while farmers are aiming for greater efficiency.

TURKEY BREAST is hailed by health professionals because it is very low in sodium, fat and cholesterol, and high in protein. But as “chicken wars” in the supermarkets drive down prices for broilers, and as eating habits move away from frozen chicken and toward fresh chickens and prepared chicken products, fresh turkey meat is being overshadowed. There is also no long-standing tradition like chicken soup and chicken schnitzel to make turkey the staple that chicken is.

“Turkey’s nutritional benefits are widely acknowledged, but we need to emphasize that it can be as good to cook with as chicken. To that end, we are now distributing pamphlets with recipes and serving suggestions,” says Egg and Poultry Board spokeswoman Ruthy Pugatch.

“Even though turkey meat is consumed at a very high rate in Israel, it still suffers from certain stigmas that we are working to overcome. Until now we have counted on shwarma and exports, but now we realize that we need to develop a broader market than just pastramis and sausages.”

Farmers like Hilman, who earn roughly half a shekel for every kilo their turkeys weigh, are looking to maximize their return and minimize their costs. Automated feeding apparatuses keep Hilman’s birds fed and watered. He can monitor their growth simply by pressing a button on a panel attached to a massive plate under the four-dunam (one acre) enclosure; he can tell by the weight whether the birds are developing apace, and adjust their food and water accordingly.

“It’s quite advanced,” says Lang, who has been working with Hilman for years. “And this farm is actually considered outdated by current standards. Modern facilities are much bigger and much, much more hi-tech.”

Technology’s most significant application is in the feed supplied to farmers. Firstly, it has become so nutritious that birds grow much faster now than they used to. When Friedman made aliya from South Africa some 35 years ago, he says, chickens took nine weeks to reach their slaughtering weight of 1.5-2 kilos. Now it takes just six weeks, and similar improvements have been seen in turkeys.

More nutritious feed means shorter growth cycles, which means more birds sold. But it also means that less feed is needed, and that is another important saving. Whereas chickens require less than 2 kg. of feed for every kilo of meat sold, turkeys need close to 3 kg. – but that is much less of a disparity than was the case in the past, Friedman says. The bottom line is that farmers are now able to raise larger birds for less.

ADDITIONALLY, THE quality of feed is being improved and ensured through filtering and treatment processes that Friedman and Lang liken to the “clean room” facilities at microchip manufacturers. Next door to their offices stands a poultry feed “clean facility” – one of few like it in the world, they boast – that treats feed to keep it free of bacteria and disease that could decimate flocks.

“It’s a very strict biosecurity facility,” Friedman says, describing multiple layers of precautionary measures observed at the plant. “If we want to avoid problems like bird flu and other illnesses, we have to make sure the food is very, very, very clean. Because if the birds eat something contaminated, they will be contaminated.

“Biosecurity means protecting your investment. If a flock dies of an illness, that’s a lot of money lost.”

The final piece to the puzzle is a more sophisticated business model, including streamlining and integration.

“Thirty years ago,” says Lang on the way out of Hilman’s farm, “there were 1,200 turkey farmers in this country. Now, there are fewer than 100, and production is slightly higher than it was back then.

“Today it’s mostly large companies, using more efficient methods. And they’re all integrated. Tnuva, Tirat Zvi, everyone has a deal worked out to connect their businesses. The days of Farmer Brown tending his chicks are over.”

As long as the days of Farmer Hilman (and the big companies, too) aren’t over as well. Turkey meat is a NIS 500 million-a-year industry, and one that a slow economy can’t afford to lose. While Americans had the promise of “a chicken in every pot” during the Great Depression, Israeli farmers will be anxious to see whether “a turkey in every oven” – or at least a breast in every pita – is a slogan that will fly.

It must still be Purim

What a week of reversals this has become! First, Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to raise child allotments by a whopping NIS 1.5 billion over the next three years. Then, Ehud Barak won an internal Labor poll to join his party to Netanyahu’s shaky coalition.

This is rich — Netanyahu as Robin Hood, taxing the rich to rain money on the poor, and Barak playing the sidekick to Netanyahu. It must still be Purim.

Netanyahu reversed his own policy, from his time as finance minister under Ariel Sharon, of limiting child welfare payments. This policy, it is now generally agreed, was one of the key financial reforms that drove the country’s economy forward. Backtracking on this policy now runs counter to Netanyahu’s stated economic aims of cutting welfare payments and encouraging productivity.

It also undermines the social ideology behind the original move. What he had originally corrected was the inexplicable discrimination in payments that provided more money for the third and fourth children, and so on, than to a family’s first and second children. Obviously, this arrangement is desirable to haredim, who have large families. But it is indefensible on so many levels — because it attaches a higher value to one child than another; because it discourages the heads of large families, haredi and Arab alike, from seeking employment; because it punishes small families with smaller payments per child.

What this agreement says is, “To hell with ideology, I just need to buy some coalition members!”

Barak, too, has made a quick retreat from his election-night speech, in which he said Labor would sit in the opposition. But, a few fat ministries in hand, he dropped that plan and dragged half his (shrinking) party back into the government. This, too, screams, “To hell with ideology, I need to be at the center of attention!”

In the past few days, Labor has been called a bunch of “rags,” and Barak’s maneuver makes it hard to disagree. Of course, he couldn’t have done it alone. That so many in Labor would follow him into Netanyahu’s arms says something about them, too, and it is this: “We have nothing of our own to offer anyone.”

It’s almost funny to imagine the day, not long from now, when this marriage of convenience between Likud and Labor breaks apart. Because that is inevitable. And when it happens, both parties will have regretted the whole thing.

Who’s collapsing now?

APTOPIX Iran Ahmadinejad InterviewIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been dancing a jig to the sounds of falling markets around the world, but now he’s finally facing the music at home.

Ahmadinejad, who has publicly rejoiced at the suffering of Western economies and proclaimed his country’s Islamic revolution the answer to such troubles, has for the first time admitted that Iran’s economy is in decline.

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. While Ahmadinejad was trying to present himself as a savior for the Iranian Republic, announcing in state-run media that he had accumulated a foreign exchange unprecedented in Iran’s history and cut the country’s dependence on oil revenues from about 62% of the national budget to a “mere” 52%, the reality for him is quite bleak. The state budget depends almost entirely on the sale of oil and natural gas, funding approximately 80% of government expenditures. When oil prices were approaching $150 per barrel, Ahmadinejad was riding high. But now that they are in the $40s again, Iran is on the brink of disaster.

For several months now, Ahmadinejad has come under increasing pressure – not so much for his bombastic statements regarding Israel, the Holocaust and Iran’s nuclear energy (i.e. weapons) program, but for the severe plunge that Iran’s economy has taken under him.

This has tremendous implications.

A conversation I had recently with a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood (and this idea has been repeated by others) was instructive. In Egypt, he said, the people saw how much the Saudis adhered to an extreme, all-encompassing form of Islam, and they saw how much Allah had blessed the Saudis with prosperity in the form of oil wealth. If only they would follow the Saudi example of piety, these Egyptians figured, they would surely reap earthly rewards as well. The opposite of this is also true — that the economic failure of radical regimes can be a powerful tool in undermining popular support for those regimes.

In my speeches, I have argued for significantly increased efforts to develop energy sources that can replace oil and natural gas, in order to deny Iran and other states like it the means with which they fight Israel and the West. Presently, market forces are doing what scientists have not.

In the absence of unforeseen circumstances, economic issues will remove Ahmadinejad from office in next year’s presidential election. That won’t solve the problems that he has created or exacerbated, of course… but it’d be a heck of a good start.

Neither flour nor Torah

studyingThe global financial meltdown’s spread to the sources of funding on which this country’s haredi institutions depend is proving the mishnaic axiom that “when there is no flour, there is no Torah.”

As The Jerusalem Post reported last week, the well of foreign donations that keeps kollelim, yeshivot and other haredi institutions afloat is running dry, sending full-time scholars out into the job market. The story of Tuvia, a 20-year-old hassid from Jerusalem who chose to operate a machine at a drug company rather than face the threat of choking poverty, was indicative of the changes under way.

The current crisis, though, is ironic – for, as the mishna above continues, “when there is no Torah, there is no flour” (Avot 3:21). Yet today, even as Torah study is on the rise, the financial well-being of the Torah-studying world faces a precipitous decline. Something is amiss.

Many haredi leaders would respond to such a paradox with a call to greater devotion – in study, in prayer and in deeds. Yet, again, this would ignore the glaring contradiction between the increasing strictness of religious observance and lengthier commitment to Torah studies among the haredim and this sector’s worsening financial straits. The contention that this suffering would be alleviated through divine recompense if only young men would concentrate more on their Gemaras can only bear so much of the strain of observable fact before it shatters. Tuvia the machine operator is just one example of what happens when it does.

Heavenly judgment notwithstanding, poverty among haredim is almost entirely self-inflicted. Only about half of haredi men and women of working age are employed – some 30 percentage points lower than the figure for non-haredi Jews – and the jobs they do hold tend to be in lower-paying sectors. The haredi community, therefore, is unable to independently fund its kollel system and relies heavily on donations from abroad. Considering how impossible this equation is, the only thing that is surprising about this crisis is that it hasn’t come sooner.

FOR ALL those who have watched with concern while the haredi community’s singular devotion to Torah studies has pushed it deeper and deeper into poverty, the impending collapse of the kollel economy is good news. Not, God forbid, that anyone should take pleasure in the distress of others, or in the thought that Torah learning may decrease. Rather, it is good news that what has been painfully obvious to so many outsiders may finally be sinking in among stalwart proponents of the widespread kollel culture that has created this catastrophe: that the system is broken, and demands repair.

The first step is to recognize that the kollel paradigm currently in vogue is a deviation from traditional Jewish norms. It is only recently, with the advent of the welfare state and other social changes, that the large-scale subsidization of long-term Torah study has taken hold. Yet even in other times and places, when wealthy patrons could have been relied upon for support, the vast majority of Torah scholars did not accept payment either for teaching or for studying holy texts.

As Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld has noted in his commentary on Pirkei Avot: “While in Temple times, scholars had either supported themselves, or been paid a pittance out of Temple funds, during the Yavne period a policy emerged of encouraging the community to regard the support of the sages as a religious-communal function.”

Even so, Rosenfeld continues, “many scholars still plied their crafts as cobblers, smiths, scribes, etc., supporting themselves in this way in their spare time. In principle the scholars accepted no remuneration for their communal activity, or for the instruction they gave, and certainly not for studying. The ideal was that a scholar ‘should study for the sake of heaven’ and live from his own toil” (Tanna de-bei Eliahu 5:2).

Of course, there have been a number of outstanding rabbis who have devoted themselves entirely to Torah study and teaching, including the gaonim of Babylonia. But they have been the exceptions to the rule. Throughout the centuries, the greatest figures in all of Jewish scholarship worked for a living.

Many a brilliant scholar employed his faculties in a position of prominence. Avraham Ibn Ezra, the Rambam, the Ramban, the Ran and Ovadia Sforno were physicians. Bahya ibn Pakuda, the Ravad and the Ralbag were philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians and judges. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, the Rashba and Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abravanel were deeply involved in finance.

Others engaged in simpler occupations. The Amoraim Rava, Abbaye, Abbahu and Hama traded wine and other goods. First-century Tanna Abba Shaul Ben Batnit was a shopkeeper in Jerusalem. The Hafetz Haim, refusing to make the rabbinate his livelihood, helped his wife maintain a small grocery.

Babylonian Amora Hisda became very wealthy as a brewer. Abba Shaul was a baker. The Rashbam was a sheep farmer. The great Italian mystic Ramchal earned a living as a diamond cutter.

Some, despite their exalted status in the study hall, earned their living through difficult or humble jobs. Honi Hame’agel, the renowned miracle worker from the period of the Second Temple, repaired roofs for a living. The Amoraim Hanina and Hoshaiah were cobblers. Some sages even tanned hides, despite the odiousness of the job.

WERE THESE men greedy for material gain? Were they inferior in faith and constitution to the young men of today, who spend their days and nights in kollel in exchange for meager stipends? The mere utterance of such a thought in today’s Jerusalem or Bnei Brak would be scandalous.

What, then, motivated our greatest scholars to toil? Their scholarship, evidently.

Although the Talmud is replete with admonitions to study Torah diligently, its pro-work ethos is overpowering.

“Love work and despise high position [the rabbinate],” the sages say in Pirkei Avot 1:10.

“The primary thing is not study,” they add in Avot 1:17, “but action.”

Going further in Avot 2:2, Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi – the very redactor of the Mishna – says, “Good is Torah study together with a worldly occupation, for the exertion in both makes one forget sin. All Torah study without work will result in waste and will cause sinfulness.”

To make this message unequivocal, they admonish in Pessahim 113a: “One should flay carcasses in the marketplace and earn a living. He should not say, ‘I am a priest, [or] I am a great man, and such work is beneath me.'”

In terms even stronger still, the Rambam writes, in his Mishneh Torah: “Whoever thinks he will study Torah and not work, and will be supported from charity, profanes God’s name, shames the Torah, darkens the light of knowledge, causes harm to himself, and takes his life from this world, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the Torah in this world.”

“Do you think,” the incredulous kollel student might well ask, “that our Torah sages of today are unaware of all these things?!”

To which we would respond, of course not! Indeed, that is what is most troubling: that, in essence, today’s haredi leaders have overruled practically every giant of Torah knowledge who has ever lived. And the consequences have been dire.

By encouraging more and more able-bodied young men to delay their professional careers, and by discouraging them from pursuing the broader technical knowledge that would improve their chances of earning a respectable wage, they have condemned hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to destitution. So, too, they have denied the working man the dignity and the sanctity with which our earliest sages invested him. Yet they rely completely on the work of his hands and eat bread by the sweat of his brow.

This problem will not be solved until paid kollel studies are limited to only the most promising of students. Doing so would allow for these students to be provided with higher stipends, which would both ease their economic hardship and more accurately reflect the value that the community places on advanced Torah scholarship. (At the same time, they ought to be required to perform some kind of community service, outside their studies.)

But what of the rest of the students, who would be sent out of the kollel? They need not abandon Torah study altogether – only combine it with professional training, followed by gainful employment. This would ease the financial pressure on them and on the rest of the community, ensuring the security of institutions of higher learning and freeing up resources for those truly unable to provide for themselves.

Defenders of the current paradigm will no doubt marshall all manner of arguments to justify its perpetuation. But resisting these critical reforms can only mean one thing: neither flour, nor Torah, for years to come.

Something to build on

Rehovot’s last remaining green fields come into view, unfolding beneath the sheet metal and wire fence elevator that is shimmying up the side of an unfinished apartment building. Rafi Halaf doesn’t notice. He’s focused on this skeleton of a structure, this tower of concrete strewn with sawdust and sand. There’s something inside he wants us to see.

Stepping carefully over piles of pipes and navigating our way past boarded-up, empty elevator shafts, we pass a man crouching on the ground, pounding tiles into what will eventually be someone’s elegant dining-room floor.

“You see this Chinese guy here, laying down tile?” Halaf says, as if he is about to reveal a secret. “What I want to see is Moshe and Itzik doing this work.”

Moshe and Itzik, of course, are just stereotypical Israeli names – names rarely heard on construction sites in Israel, where foreign workers like the Chinese tiler are ubiquitous. Together with agriculture, the construction industry dominates the market for foreign workers in this country; their voracious appetite for Asians and Eastern Europeans frustrates the Treasury and the Bank of Israel, which see this as detrimental to the economy.

At the Tidhar construction company, Halaf is leading a project to change the situation. Called “Aharai,” or “After me,” in the style of the IDF combat units’ recruiting call, the project offers incentives for young men who have recently mustered out of the army to join the company in building apartment complexes. The project is bearing fruit and gaining fans: Although it has brought only a modest number of Israelis into the construction industry in the past year, Aharai is already being hailed as a success by the Building Contractors Association and a model for other companies to emulate. Two weeks ago, the Treasury devoted NIS 30 million to expanding Tidhar’s program to the rest of the industry.

This might not seem like much. But it’s a symbolic victory in a battle that had been assumed to have been lost – and, many hope, the start of a dramatic turnaround.

SOME 150,000 Israelis currently work in construction, about 55 percent of them Jews. Another 50,000 or more foreign workers have been expelled and, until now, repeated attempts at persuading Israelis – especially Jews – to take their place have failed.

In a way, that’s strange. An entire generation of Israelis grew up on the tales of “Hebrew labor,” of proud “new Jews” who were not weak, bookish types but strong and industrious folks who drained the swamps of Galilee and literally laid the groundwork for the Jewish state’s development. Why, then, have that generation’s children avoided construction work?

“Because,” Halaf says, “the guy who drained the swamps worked really hard and got paid peanuts, so he told his kids to learn a better profession. He said, ‘This just isn’t worth it.’ We want to show today’s young men that construction work can be worthwhile.”

The package that Tidhar has come up with is indeed worthwhile: In the first month on the job, which is primarily training, recruits are paid a gross salary of NIS 6,000. From the second month on, they earn NIS 7,000. Once they show they’re capable, they start earning according to how much work they do. Their expenses are minimal, as they share an apartment, rent-free, are driven to and from the construction site and are provided with lunch. Tidhar also pays them a grant for staying with the company long-term.

“We’re talking about guys who are looking to make some money after their army service,” Halaf says. “If they stay with us for six months, they receive a NIS 4,000 grant from the government for working in a ‘priority industry.’ At that point, most of the guys take the money and go off to travel in India or Thailand or wherever.

“But we would like to see them stay on with us, so we offer them further grants. We hope that they’ll see that, if they do remain in this business, they can go on to become work supervisors, site managers, etc. There are possibilities.”

At the construction site in Rehovot, Halaf shows off Amnon and Nir, two of his star pupils, as examples of what can be accomplished. The two 23-year-olds, who grew up together in Kfar Shammai, near Safed, have been with the company for a year and for nine months, respectively, but they already have the look of experienced craftsmen.

Standing astride folding ladders, deftly swinging their legs to maneuver them, “walking” them around as if on stilts, the young men drill frames into place for drywall that will become the face of living rooms and lobbies.

They’re here for the money, and for the opportunity to turn a first job into a long-lasting career. It definitely beats work as a pizza delivery guy or anything else they could have done back home.

“If I weren’t here,” Nir says, “I’d probably be helping my father on the farm.” That wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, he implies.

During a lunch break, the handful of Israeli workers sit together in the work site office to eat. They let loose, joking about each other and planning a company soccer match for the next day, building camaraderie. Afterward, half the guys go out to smoke cigarettes. “Occupational hazard,” they say.

Back inside the building, the Israelis and the Chinese workers who do the more laborious tasks share a congenial relationship, observing a mild separation that is not forced, but a natural consequence of the barriers of language and culture.

A few of the Chinese file through the room where Amnon and Nir are working, with all nodding in greeting. “Ni hao?” one says, offering the Mandarin for “How are you?” Then he adds, in Hebrew, “Yafeh” – “fine.” One stops to give impromptu kung fu lessons to Amnon and Nir. They all laugh as Nir struggles to grasp the intricacies of a particular move, with their instructor gesturing patiently and repeating, in Hebrew, “kacha” – “like this.”

It’s clear the young men enjoy themselves, that they don’t feel overwhelmed by their work. It’s also clear, though, that they know how to work; after a minute’s play they’re back at their drills and humming through another round of drywall. They’re at the construction site by 6:30 in the morning, and often stay well into the evening – “As much as the light will allow,” Amnon says.

Their motivation is simple: cash. Now that they have proven themselves, they get paid for as much as they’re willing to do. “If you bust your ass,” Amnon says, “you can make really good money.”

Both men hope to stay on, continuing to learn more sides of the trade and make their way from the folding ladder to the corporate ladder. “Oh, definitely,” says Nir. “We don’t want to be drywall guys forever.”

Halaf laughs at the young men’s ambition, saying, “As in any business, you don’t start out as a manager. When I first started out, I was carrying bags of concrete.” At the same time, he encourages them to strive.

“Don’t let them know I said so, because they’ll get a big head over it,” he whispers, “but guys like these are our future.”

MONEY IS what drives the success of the program, as far as the recruits are concerned. Not so for the company.

From a purely economic standpoint, it makes sense for contractors to hire foreigners, as they cost a whopping 40 percent less than Israelis. So why should companies pay money from their own pocket to entice Israelis to take construction jobs, even encouraging them to demand higher salaries?

“It’s about ideology,” Halaf says. “I see how important it is for this country to develop its own workforce. It’s also about the way you educate your kids. When I take my kids to a construction site, they have a great time. Then they come home and tell their mother that they want to learn how to install a floor, or become a carpenter, or something else in construction.

“But every Jewish mother wants her son to become a lawyer or a doctor, or anything but a construction worker. So what does my wife say? ‘No way! You’re going to be an astronaut. You’re going to be a pilot. You’re going to be a computer engineer.’ Well, you know what? Not everyone can be a doctor or a programmer. So why not work in construction?”

There is also a value, Halaf says, to inculcating a sense of pride in literally building the state – and rewards that can be hard to measure.

“You see those finished buildings over here? I helped construct them. When I look at those buildings, I know that I helped build this country, and that’s a great feeling. When a building is finished and you hand over the key to an apartment to someone who is going to make that their home, it’s a tremendous feeling.”

Amnon and Nir agree it’s a thrill to see a building take shape, though they don’t usually get to see it completed. As strictly drywall experts, they move from site to site, as they’re needed, every few weeks. They also see the addition of more Jews to the construction sector as an “extra.” But they wouldn’t have stuck it out this far if the job hadn’t turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

“When you suggest to a young man today that he go into the construction business,” Halaf says, “he answers, ‘What, I should go become a schlepper?!’ People don’t realize that this job is not nearly as physical as it used to be.

“I remember when I was 16 years old, having to carry cinder blocks on my shoulder up several flights of stairs. Can you imagine? Do you know what it’s like to carry 450 of those things up stairs? It takes all day. Nowadays, though, a crane picks up the whole lot of cinder blocks and puts them down wherever you need them, while you take an elevator up. It’s a different world.”

The work is by no means easy, with shifts typically lasting from 6:30 in the morning to 6:30 at night. Despite the long hours, though, Amnon, Nir and the rest of those in the Aharai program don’t let the work cramp their social lives. Usually, they say, they have the energy upon getting home to shower and go out for the evening.

“People think this is still the old-style, very labor-intensive kind of construction work. They don’t realize how much the field has changed, how mechanical it has become.”

SO TURNING around the construction industry is about money, it’s about ideology and it’s about image. Those are a lot of things to change, but Halaf allows himself some fantasy.

“There’s this cliché about a little boy walking with his father, where his eyes light up and he says, ‘Look, daddy, a soldier!’ The thing is, from a young age, we all learn to view our soldiers as heroes, as people to emulate and idolize. Well, this may sound funny,” Halaf says, “but what I want to see is a little boy’s eyes lighting up and him saying, ‘Look, daddy, a construction worker!'”

Halaf believes this will happen, in time. He sees a “revolution” on the horizon for construction hiring practices, with waves of Israelis replacing foreign workers.

“I have another 25 years to go before my retirement,” he says, “and I believe I’ll see this revolution completed by then.”

While all those Jewish mothers may need that long to get used to the idea, clearly there are some who have already warmed up to it.

“If you don’t care about wearing a tie and sitting in an air-conditioned office all day,” Amnon says, cradling his drill, “why wouldn’t you want to do this?”

A blueprint gone bad

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics and other government sources indicate a peak of some 300,000 foreign workers here in 2001. The trend can be traced to 1993, when an economic boom drove up demand for low-skilled labor while, simultaneously, security fears over Palestinian workers put a clamp on supply. By the early part of this decade, as unemployment soared past the 11 percent mark and foreign workers made up more than a 10th of the labor force, the country’s reliance on foreigners went from an afterthought to a major talking point and the target of intense criticism within the government.

In 2003, as finance minister, Binyamin Netanyahu raised the tax that employers paid for foreign workers’ salaries. The move was meant to make foreign labor less economical for contractors, and to make hiring Israelis seem less expensive, by comparison.

“Many foreigners occupy jobs like a tenant occupies a room,” Dr. Michel Strawczynski, deputy head of research at Bank of Israel, said in 2003, defending the government’s crackdown on foreign workers. “When the foreigner leaves his job, it becomes vacant like a room does.”

By expelling illegal foreign workers from the country and reducing the number of legal foreign workers allowed to enter, the government’s hope has been that a plethora of employment “rooms” will be vacated, and that Israelis will seek to occupy them.

But they haven’t.

Although Strawczynski credited the expulsion of tens of thousands of foreign workers for a strong increase in Israelis employed in construction five years ago, that phenomenon has proven since then to have been an anomaly.

Contractors complain that they are suffering from a shortage of about 50,000 workers – a figure that, not coincidentally, roughly equals the number of foreign workers the construction industry has lost to the government’s cutbacks in quotas.

To some extent, demands to reinstate the high levels of foreign workers can be attributed to the financial interests of manpower companies that “supply” employers with cheap laborers. But much of that self-interest has been exposed, and has died down accordingly, while genuine efforts to recruit Israelis have consistently failed.

In 2004, just two years into a 10-year plan to train unemployed Jews for construction work, the Building Contractors Association pulled the plug on the program after only 75 people showed interest. A similar course, run by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry that included Arabs, drew well over 800.

With that kind of turnout, industry leaders despaired of ever seeing Israelis replace the foreign legion of laborers that had been sent packing.

“In some cases,” Strawczynski allowed back in 2003, at the height of the deportations, “the job-room analogy does not hold true. When the foreigner leaves, he takes his job with him.”

The question is why this is so. Why have efforts to attract Israelis to jobs in construction failed until now, and why is Tidhar’s “Aharai” program working?

“More than anything,” Strawczynski explained, “it is a function of money. The more the foreigner gets paid, the better the chances that his job will be similar to a room which can be vacated for an Israeli.”

That’s one reason Netanyahu raised taxes on employers of foreign workers. But it’s also why failing to pay Israelis higher wages for the work that foreigners were doing doomed the effort from the start.

Until now, beginning construction workers in Israel earned about 10-15% less than the average salary, while their Western European and US counterparts made 10-15% more than the average salary. Previous government incentive programs only partially closed this gap, which is largely why those programs failed. Tidhar’s model, in which new workers earn salaries and other financial incentives that can compete with the job market as a whole, seems to be the first model that can break that losing record on recruitment.