Bennett: Ultra-Orthodox scholars can boost Israeli high-tech

Economics Minister, setting out his vision, says he wants Talmud students to use their acumen to innovate in technology – just like they do in South Korea (really!)

Economics Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the Multinational R&D forum sponsored by IATI on April 11 (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Economics Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the Multinational R&D forum sponsored by IATI on April 11 (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel’s economy is poised to get a major boost soon, according to Economics Minister Naftali Bennett – courtesy of the ultra-Orthodox youths he expects to begin flooding the job market in the coming months and years.

“It’s an anomaly,” Bennett told a Tel Aviv conference. “I was speaking to the South Korean ambassador to Israel recently, and he told me that kids in his country study Talmud in order to sharpen their intelligence.”

Israel already has a rather larger population that does just that, and with the new policies he and Finance Yair Lapid are implementing, the Talmudic-fostered intelligence of Israeli haredim will significantly upgrade the Israeli economy. “We are soon going to see an influx of very capable and very intelligent people enter the job market,” Bennett said. “When that happens, some great things are going to happen to the economy.”

Bennett made the comments as a featured speaker at an event Thursday sponsored by the Israel Advanced Technology Industries (IATI), an umbrella group that fosters communications between tech companies and lobbies for the industry. The event highlighted the activities of research and development centers of multinational companies in Israel – a sector, according to IATA CEO Karin Rubinstein, that is responsible for half of the high-tech jobs in Israel.

Seventeen of the world’s top tech companies, including Microsoft, Google, Oracle, IBM, Yahoo, General Motors, Sears, gave briefings about their R&D labs, and how Israeli technology contributes to the bottom line of their parent corporations, among other subjects. Ambassadors and/or diplomatic staff from 41 countries were among those present.

Speaking in English, Bennett set out his vision of the new government’s economic policy. Key to that vision, Bennett said, was expanding the pool of qualified tech workers, with new workers drawn from the Haredi community and from among Israeli Arab women. “Only 29% of them work, and many more want to,” Bennett said.

The influx of new workers will come within the next 12 months, he said. “In the first part of our plan we will be issuing vouchers for [vocational] study to anyone who is eligible, and that will he just about anyone” of draft age in the Haredi community. Those who agree to go to school will be exempted from IDF service, at least in the first stage. “The voucher will be good at hundreds of schools around the country for students to learn a vocational skill – something productive, if you know what I mean,” Bennett said to chuckles from the audience. “Haredi youth are smart and they are going to bring a big benefit to the high-tech industry. We are now going to be able to get them younger, so they will be even more productive.”

The need for good talent is acute, Bennett said – as he knows from his own days in high-tech. Among the companies presenting at the conference was EMC, whose RSA division in Israel (which specializes in financial security technology) was opened after EMC in 2005 acquired Cyota, the company Bennett and three friends started in 1999.

“Today RSA has 400 employees, not a bad rate of growth from when we started,” Bennett said. “Later on, after we became successful, I found that one of the biggest challenges was finding qualified workers, and I know that this is a challenge for many tech companies today as well. It’s as if we have found all the good workers from the existing pool of talent, but with our new plan, we will be expanding that pool.”

The voucher plan represents a sea change in high-tech training, said Bennett. Although the wheels of bureaucracy have traditionally turned very slowly in Israel, “the government we’ve formed is something new. You could call it a ‘start-up government,’ and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he promised.

With the help of his political ally Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Bennett said that his Jewish Home party, along with Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, are poised to bring significant, even radical, change to politics. “What started out as a tactical arrangement between Lapid and I has turned into an opportunity to get the things done that everyone knew needed to be done, but for which there was no political will.”

Besides encouraging Haredi youth to enter the workplace, Bennett and Lapid have a few other goals, the minister said. “We want to encourage new competition and reduce the many artificial barriers that are preventing international businesses from competing here. We are going to remove these barriers, which will bring down costs.”

In addition, “we are going to break the monopolies, the trusts. You have families in Israel that have too much power. We are going to take a page from the great American president Teddy Roosevelt, and break our own trusts.” Breaking the monopolies applies not just to business, but to workers. “I am not against unions, but I do not support monopolies of labor that take actions to hurt the country.” Bennett did not specify how these goals would be achieved, but did say that he and Lapid were working on the appropriate legislation.

When these goals are achieved, the country’s economy will bloom like never before, the minister vowed. “We’ve gone from exporting technology to exporting innovation,” he said. “Israel now has a reputation around the world of being not just a place to develop products and technology, but to develop ideas.”

The measures he advocates will bring many more Israelis into the middle class, providing better jobs and more wealth for everyone, he said. “There’s a lot of innovation represented in this room,” the minister said, addressing the top tech executives. “But mark my words, we ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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