Haredim and the future of Israel

“Rapid Rise of Israel’s Orthodox Schools Sparks Fear of Army, Work and Force Shortage,”[1] read the headline for Daphna Berman’s article in The Forward on August 3rd, 2007. In it, she discusses how according to recent government reports, the Ultra-Orthodox community has grown to comprise roughly 10 percent of Israel’s population. She gravely reports,

A study released last month by the Central Bureau of Statistics predicts that one-third of all Jewish elementary-school students in Israel will be enrolled in the ultra-Orthodox education system by 2012. A week after the education study was released, the Israeli military reported that the number of eligible 18-year-old men not enlisting in the army had sharply risen to one-quarter, nearly half of them ultra-Orthodox. . . .

According to the recently released elementary-school report, by 2012 only 50% of all Jewish elementary-school students will be enrolled in the public education system. . . . This year, 23% of first graders were enrolled in Haredi schools.[2]

 

The intent of the article is to demonstrate that Israeli society is fearful that this growing Haredi population will become an increasingly heavier burden on society, and non-Haredi Israel’s decreasing numbers (relatively speaking) will be unable to sustain such a state. Whether Israeli society will be able to sustain the growing Haredi population is a fascinating question, but I would like to look at the issue presented in this article from a different angle.

Several months ago, I, along with the rest of the Mandel Fellows of Cohort III (of Hebrew Union College’s Rabbinical program), visited the Ron Shulamit Music Conservatory, one of few Haredi women’s conservatories, in Har Nof, Jerusalem. After spending a fascinating afternoon walking from class to class, hearing beautiful music and tremendously talented Haredi girls, we sat down with one of the heads of the organization in discussion. She shared something with us, a few moments before we left, that has since plagued my thoughts. Within a few decades, she said, the growing Haredi population would pass the population threshold and become one of, if not the, majority among Israeli Jews. It would fall upon the Haredim to govern the country, run the military, and keep the population healthy and well-fed. As the Ultra-Orthodox are starting to realize, they may hold the fate of Israel, and all Israelis, in their hands.

I do not believe that events will unfold as the Haredi woman predicted, but I am not sure that her words are entirely false. As shown in the statistics,Berman cited, the Haredi population is growing rapidly, relative to Israel’s population. In this paper, then, I will begin looking to the validity of this woman’s ideas around the future of the Haredim and Israel. To begin the conversation, I will first look to build a working general definition of whom we might include under the term “Haredi.” I will then explore the question of where Haredim stand in relation to mainstream Israel and society.

This paper is brief, and my responses to these questions, therefore, are preliminary. Sources used have included recent sociological and historical studies, as well as articles from the Israeli and Jewish media. Through this exploration, I hope to shine some light onto this Israeli-Haredi demographic issue.

WHO ARE THE HAREDIM?

The name itself means ‘the fearful,’ and this attribute is most definitely shared by all those considered Haredim. Beyond this, however, it is difficult to group such a large and diverse people together. Aviezer Ravitsky observes, “As a generic term, … ‘Haredi Jewry’ may be artificial and only valid from the perspective of the outside observer who sees surface manifestations, but not the conflicts of philosophy and outlook.”[3] The many Haredi subgroups, including but not limited to Hasidim, Mitnagdim, Lubavitchers, and Mizrashi Shas, may be entirely different when one considers their attitudes towards modernity, the larger Jewish community, Zionism, or countless other issues.[4] Additional distinctions must be noted between the Hasidim of Israel and the Hasidim of Europe and North America.[5]

There are several ways, however, in which these groups may be aligned together. Menachem Friedman, the first to critically study the Haredi community, saw them as a “society of learners”[6]—one completely dependent upon and revolving around the yeshivot and kolelim and their rabbinic leaders.[7] Some, like former Haredi Aharon Rose, have critiqued Friedman’s perspective, arguing that the Haredim have higher goals and rationales than simple yeshiva study, and one should really understand them as acting through means by which they might survive and flourish. Study is one way, and using the modern methods of newspapers and political parties is another.[8] Others, like David Assaf, see these critiques as misunderstandings of Friedman’s position. Assaf writes,

…his original argument related to the political and economic arrangements that developed in the State of Israel, and which directly and indirectly dictated the existence of a Haredi society of learners, which exists for the most part until the age of final discharge from the Israel Defense.[9]

Friedman seems to categorize the Haredim as a people who, as a means of avoiding military service to the State of Israel—for various reasons—remain in a semi-permanent state of yeshiva learning, which has proven to be a political and economical solution to Haredi survival. Thus, from Friedman’s perspective, Haredim may be defined as the group of Jews who base their lives around yeshiva learning and largely keep to themselves, separate from mainstream Israeli society.

Aviezer Ravitsky focuses upon a different unifying factor—one that is more ideologically based. “Who is a Haredi? Whoever views and experiences life in the Jewish state in Eretz Israel as exile—the exile of Israel in the Holy Land.” The subgroups differ, with one extreme being anti-Zionist (i.e. the Neturei Karta) and another being quite accomodationist, seeing the State of Israel’s existence as the beginning of the ingathering of the exiles. All groups understand that the State of Israel’s birth did not mark the beginning of Messianic times; rather, the Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, and despite our living in the Holy Land, we continue to remain in spiritual exile.[10]

The formerly Haredi writer Aharon Rose, sees the Haredim as having in common a frustration and self-distancing with the modern Western world. He writes,

Haredi Judaism, regardless of its particular faction, objects to Jews entering the cultural fray of the modern West, studying in its institutions, revering its leaders, fighting in its wars, or partaking of its cultural bounty. First, Haredi Jews aspire to be different from the surrounding culture, whose values, behaviors, and worldviews conflict with their own. Second, they seek to remain loyal to the traditional Jewish identity in Eastern Europe that preceded the Emancipation. It is only by means of this identity, the Haredim believe, and the lifestyle through which it finds expression, that the Jew can fulfill his obligation to live a life in accordance with God’s will.[11]

In other words, their energies are directed towards living a “traditional” Jewish lifestyle as best as they can, requiring that they shut out many Western influences that may distract from their sacred purpose.

Rose and Ravitzky have looked to ideologies as a unifying factor, but it should be noted that some suggest that many Haredim have moved from ideological to de facto living. Though ideologically they remain in exile, Yitzhak Meir Yavetz writes,

Many Haredim identify with the State of Israel and feel that it is their state. Deferral of military service is no longer a matter of pure ideology among many yeshiva students, but rather an arrangement that no one bothers to devote much thought to, perhaps out of fear of the conclusion that they might arrive at. Military service per se is not viewed as a sin, but rather as a distant, alien norm. It is simply not part of life.[12]

Yavetz’s thoughts are particularly useful in understanding today’s Haredi population (or at least those living in Ramot Beit Shemesh), as he shows how after sixty years of living in the State of Israel, Haredi ideological views are slowly falling by the wayside to be supplanted with practical necessities for living. We will explore this more in later sections of this paper.

Demographically, the Ultra-Orthodox are estimated at 7 to 8 percent of Israel’s current Jewish population,[13] and they have the highest birth rate of all Israeli groups,[14] which means that they will soon comprise a large social segment. Representationally, they’ve had 5 or 6 seats in the Knesset over the past decade, and it is believed that other Haredim are voting for different parties based on personal preference. When referring to Haredim, I am specifically referring to the Ashkenazi Haredim, as have most of the resources used. If we consider other forms of Ultra-Orthodox in Israel, percentages may be even higher.

WHERE DO THE HAREDIM STAND IN RELATION TO MAINSTREAM ISRAEL?

Ideologically, there are indeed a few of the older cohort in the more centric Haredim who find the State of Israel problematic. Ravitzky quotes Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, the late rabbi of Moshav Komemiyyut, who said, “Our sings have led to our being put in exile in the Holy Land, in the hands of the nonreligious.”[15] For the most part however, ideological positions on the state of Israel have moderated, and the State of Israel is now understood as a “religiously neutral entity, part of the secular realm belonging to the age of exile.”[16] As in any other time and place, the state should be judged only in how it relates to its Jews, to Torah, and to Jewish law.[17] “Only the argument concerning the nature of secular nationalism and the abandonment of the Torah has retained its force.”[18] The issues that remain are that they are living among Jews who are freethinking, secular, and making Jewish choices that negate their understanding of Halachah, or non-Jewish choices, abrogating the words of Torah.

Given that there are few ideological problems with engaging the State and its Western elements, we now turn to Haredi attitudes. According to Eliezer Ben-Rafael and Yochanan Peres’ demographic study, 97 percent of the Ultra-Orthodox (compared to 83 percent of the nonreligious) see Israel, in addition to being the “holy land,” as their home.[19] It seems, that more than in other countries and cultures, “Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox converge with Israeli culture.”[20] Kimmy Caplan elaborates on this point:

Nevertheless, observations lead to the conclusion that the Haredim, like other fundamentalist groups, are influenced by their respective surroundings, such as dress, mannerisms, and social and cultural norms. Although this conclusion may sound trivial and commonplace, it is noteworthy because Haredi rhetoric tends to insist that ‘Haredi is Haredi is Haredi,’ no matter where or when. Be that as it may, the significant differences between Haredim in various countries explain why both scholars and laymen naturally refer to America Haredim, Belgian Haredim… or Swiss Haredim, rather than to Haredim who live in America, Belgium… or Switzerland.[21]

Israel’s Haredim are very much Israeli—they have built their home in the State and they lead lives comparable to those of other Israelis. They have even begun to use Modern Hebrew, the holy language, in their communities.[22]

This being said, Ben-Rafael and Peres’ study also shows that the Ultra-Orthodox, of all groups, feel the least involved in society–their religiosity keeps them feeling divided from secular mainstream Israel.[23] They will, though, fight politically to make society more amenable to their way of life.

If up to now they agreed to enter governmental coalitions by sustaining them from the outside—a pattern that safeguarded at the same time their aspiration to disengage from what the government symbolizes and the wish to play a role in the definition of policies (not to speak of the fostering of their specific interests in recent years, they give signs of a readiness—if not a velleity—to directly participate in governments.[24]

Contrary to generally held prejudices, the Ultra-Orthodox are not so hostile to Western Israeli society. (BR269) They do self-segregate in their own observant communities and they have stringent expectations for a State run by Jews, but they are open to engaging others on the political and societal levels.

WHERE DO THE HAREDIM STAND IN RELATION TO SOCIETY?

Ravitzky writes that “A confrontation with an abstract idea, with a Jewish state that is merely a vision or dream of the future, is not the same as a real-life confrontation with an actual and concrete Jewish state.”[25] As we have seen, practical life offers challenges that simply cannot be met living ideologically. Thus, we see the Haredim operating in the social system as much as they have to, in what Ravitzky terms “functional areas.” While they remain separate in areas like “education, culture, and creativity,” there is evidence of a greater inclination towards society in other areas like business and politics.[26]

One can see increasing Haredi involvement in Israeli society in two ways. Kimmy Caplan, summarized by Assaf, goes to the extent of calling this “the Israelization” of the Ultra-Orthodox, an “irreversible process” occurring partly as a result of women entering the workforce.[27] Another perspective though, from Ravitzky, is more conservative, in noting that each action and entrance into the larger social sphere is evaluated on an ad hoc basis, according to the merits. If one needs to leave the Haredi sphere to sustain the community financially, so be it. The same goes for government work, shopping, and health.[28]

This lens gives some logic to the Haredi attitude toward military service. While initially, from an ideological standpoint Haredim preferred to remain outside the military so as not to fight on behalf of the state, more recently, the issue is assimilation and exposure into the non-Haredi world.[29] This point has been reinforced by the success of Nakhal Haredi, units for Haredi men that permit them to enter the army and benefit in the long term from having served, without having to mix with the secular community.[30] This being said, however, there is a limited success to these units. The Haredi authorities are still often against military service,[31] and a recent report showed that the once increasing rate of Haredim conscripted into the military is becoming stagnant. Amos Harel, the reporter, notes that this “may indicate that the current solutions offered by the IDF have been maximized. It may also mean that the absence of significant external pressure means there is no real incentive for Haredim to apply for military or civilian service.”[32] Without significant incentives to serve, there is no reason for the Haredim to engage the service, and so, they do not.

The area where we are seeing the greatest change in Haredi mainstream involvement is that of occupation and employment. Particularly for women, there have been significant increases in vocational learning. Ben-Rafael and Peres report,

…many Ultra-Orthodox women today take part in programs of academic education (with the support of Ultra-Orthodox institutions) to obtain diplomas that will help them to become not only breadwinners for husbands who dedicate themselves to religious study but also breadwinners with careers, in which they will be susceptible to new horizons and interests.[33]

Indeed, Caplan reports that in addition to vocational training, there’s a growing trend for women to attend lectures where they learn about issues like family planning, the role of Haredi women, and work outside the home in non-Haredi settings.[34] One might suggest that feminist influences are finding their way into the Haredi community.[35]

While the greatest vocational involvement is seen in women, more and more men are undergoing academic and vocational training, primarily in the areas of business management and law.[36] Army Radio, presenting a report from the Bank of Israel, announced on April 24, 2011 that “[some] 6000 haredim study professions considered strongly linked to the job market,” and that “[the] number of haredim that signed up for studies meant to integrate them into the job market tripled in the last six years.”[37]

The Bank of Israel, though, in anticipation of this report, also noted that while these 6000 haredi students have grown from only 2000 in the past 5 years, there has not been a significant increase in workforce participation.[38] Additionally, we’re finding that many Haredi rabbis are coming out against academic and vocational studies for Haredim.[39]

Politically speaking, it is clear from reading the Israeli papers on any given day that the Haredim are heavily involved in politics, but as noted above, their actions are purely for the cause of advancing their particular interests.[40] Ben-Rafael and Peres do note, though, “that the Ultra-Orthodox also consider themselves mobilized for an all-Jewish religious cause, i.e., the strengthening of religious law in the Israeli constitutional order.”[41] This is worth mentioning because rather than being a particular issue in which they may engage, this may also be understood as a larger ideological approach to government involvement.

Culturally, there is some influence from mainstream Israeli society, as we see in phenomena like the adoption of the Hebrew language, an increase in internet usage, and participation in political and military life,[42] but for the most part, the Haredi community remains a self-segregated enclave where “the Haredi individual lives inside a tightly packed system of connections and identifications.”[43]

Indeed, it may be wise to be skeptical in regards to the many studies reporting on a growing openness in Haredi society. Commenting on some of these works, Aharon Rose writes,

…most of the evidence [Yair] Sheleg evinces to show the “profound changes” in Haredi society… occurs primarily on the periphery… For this reason, [Tamar] Elor does not tell us what percentage of the Haredi population the mall-goers represent (in fact, a very small one), or their status in the Haredi community. It is this failure to distinguish between center and periphery that accounts for endless newspaper coverage of the new “openness” among the Haredi community, such as education for democracy and Haredi artists who paint nudes. A closer look will reveal, in most cases, that a connection to the mainstream Haredi community is ephemeral at best.

. . . it is a fact of the more than 1,000 men who have served in Nahal Haredi since its inception just over six years ago, no more than about 50 came from the core of the Haredi community. The majority, rather, came form a wide range of peripheral groups—semi-Haredi Zionists, followers of the Lubavitcher and Breslaver Hasidic groups, and hozrim bitshuva [those who have chosen to become ultra-Orthodox].[44]

Rose’s words are deeply critical of most of the works studied. While his article is anecdotal and may not be 100 percent factual, it is written from experience and certainly sheds a different light upon the evidence cited above. He also highlights the problem with the statistics mentioned, that they fail to show who they have counted. From which subgroups are the new students and workers coming? Are they indeed coming from the mainstream? Indeed, a 2010 study presented to the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee showed that only 2.3% of the Haredi workforce are part of the country’s business sector. It found that most Haredi women (66%) and men (45%) remain in the Haredi enclave, working in community jobs, education, health, or public service.[45]

Thus, it may be concluded that the Haredim have made significant inroads in the vocational and political spheres, but they are nowhere close, nor desire to be close, to becoming fully integrated and participating in Israeli society beyond their own.

CONCLUSION

Ravitsky is appropriate in dubbing what the future may likely hold “an acute dilemma.” He writes,

Certain developments in Israel—pertaining to coalition politics; demographic, electoral, and ethnic changes; and a loss of self-confidence on the part of the secular majority of society—have suddenly provided Haredim with power and influence, both material and spiritual, to a degree far exceeding that required by, or appropriate to, a life based on qualified acceptance of a strange and alien reality. These developments have increased their direct involvement in questions of society and economy, land settlement and foreign policy, and peace and war to a degree that is inconsistent with their intellectual and psychological inclinations, based as these are on passive ex post facto adaptation and retreat and spiritual turning inward.[46]

Given that Haredi numbers are increasing, we may indeed see an increase in Haredi political power in the Knesset. This power, however, may not necessarily be concentrated in one place, as already noted, and so it cannot be undeniably assumed that the Haredim will soon control the government. Should they move that far into the center of power, at this point, they will have to make some compromises if they are going to successfully run a country with a large secular population. While they are open to the Western mainstream in theory, they do not fraternize with rest of society unless absolutely necessary, and do not seem to be on a fast enough journey to reach a middle ground in practice. The Haredim are not yet contributing in any significant way to the economy or military. If they are to reach a place where they could be capable of running a country, it would take decades of learning and growth.

Alternatively, if the Haredim were to pass the demographic threshold and be forced into backing friendly leadership, the mainstream could turn to their periphery, the lesser of evils, to represent them and liaison with greater society. It is no coincidence that all the Haredi authors discussed in this paper were indeed those Haredi academics on their societal fringes. Perhaps these people could be leaders, from a practical and pragmatic standpoint, for the Israeli Haredi population of the future.

In response to the initial issue raised then, it seems that there was some validity to statement made by the Haredi woman at the Ron Shulamit Music Conservatory. It is quite possible that the Haredim, given their birthrate, will overtake other population sectors in numbers. It may be that they will find themselves with the possibility of taking increasing governmental power. It is doubtful, though, given the data above, that the Haredi mainstream will leap into governing the country at large in spheres beyond their areas of interest. The closest we may come to seeing her conclusions manifest may be in seeing these peripheral Haredim become more involved in mainstream society and politics. There is potential for this peripheral subgroup to build bridges between mainstream Israel and mainstream Israeli Haredim. I look forward to asking this question again in ten years, to see whether anything has indeed shifted and whether these predictions hold any accuracy.

[1] Daphna Berman. “Rapid rise of Israel’s Orthodox schools sparks fear of army, work force shortage.” The Forward. www.forward.com. Aug 3, 2007. Retrieved Apr 2011.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Aviezer Ravitzky. “Exile in the Holy Land: The dilemma of Haredi jewry.” Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism. Trans. Michael Swirsky and Jonathan Chipman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 146.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Yoel Finkelman. “Ultra-Orthodox/Haredi education.” International Handbook of Jewish Education. Springer Science and Business Media, 2011.
[6] David Assaf. “No longer a ‘nature preserve.’” Haaretz. www.haaretz.com. Jun 26, 2007. Retrieved Apr 29, 2011.
[7] Menachem Friedman. “Haredi violence in contemporary Israeli society.” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 18. Ed. Peter Y. Medding. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 194.
[8] Aharon Rose. “The Haredim: A defense. Azure 25, Summer 2006. 35-36.
[9] Assaf.
[10] Ravitzky, 146-147.
[11] Rose, 31.
[12] Yitzhak Meir Yavetz. “Breaking down the wall between the Haredim and the religious Zionists.” Eretz Acheret. www.acheret.co.il/en. May 27, 2010. Retrieved Apr 29, 2011.
[13] Eliezer Ben-Rafael and Yochanan Peres. Is Israel One? Religion, Nationalism, and Multiculturalism Confounded. Boston: Brill, 2005. 62.
[14] Ibid., 84.
[15] Ravitzky, 148.
[16] Ibid., 145.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 151.
[19] Ben-Rafael and Peres, 67.
[20] Ibid., 270.
[21] Kimmy Caplan. “Haredim and Western culture: A view from both sides of the ocean.” Middle Eastern Societies and the West: Accommodation or Clash of Civilizations?. Ed. Meir Litvak. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2006. 270.
[22] Ben-Rafael and Peres, 270.
[23] Ibid., 68.
[24] Ben-Rafael and Peres, 270.
[25] Ravitzky, 151.
[26] Ibid., 167.
[27] Assaf.
[28] Ravitzky, 152-153.
[29] Ben-Rafael and Peres, 36.
[30] Ibid., 84.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Amos Harel. “Increase in Haredim draftees in IDF slowing down.” Haaretz. www.haaretz.com. Feb 18, 2011. Retrieved Apr 29, 2011.
[33] Ben-Rafael and Peres, 84.
[34] Caplan, 279.
[35] Assaf.
[36] “No. of Haredim studying to integrate into workforce triples.” The Jerusalem Post. www.jpost.com. Mar 27, 2011. Retrieved Apr 29, 2011.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ben Hartman. “Number of Haredim pursuing academic studies up dramatically.” The Jerusalem Post. www.jpost.com. Mar 28, 2011. Retrieved Apr 29, 2011.
[39] Anshel Pfeffer. “Top rabbi slams higher education for Haredim.” Haaretz. www.haaretz.com. May 20, 2002. Retrieved Apr 29, 2011; Miriam Shaviv. “War on Internet is a fight the Rabbis can’t win.” The Forward. www.forward.com. Feb 5, 2010. Retrieved Apr 29, 2011.
[40] Ben-Rafael and Peres, 39.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid., 63.
[43] Rose, 48-49.
[44] Rose, 40-41.
[45] Zvi Zrahiya. “More than half of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox living in poverty.” Haaretz. www.haaretz.com. Nov 7, 2010. Retrieved Apr 29, 2011.
[46] Ravitzky, 163.

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David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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