AJC Mideast Briefing: The Crisis of Israeli Haredi Judaism

By Ed Rettig, Director, AJC Israel

Spitting on an eight-year-old girl; shouting “whore” at a young female soldier in uniform because she sits in the front section of a bus among men; protesting what they describe as a campaign against them in the media by dressing children in concentration-camp-style uniforms with yellow stars pinned to their chests. These stories and others like them are front-page news in Israel. AJC Executive Director David Harris expressed the outrage we feel in a judicious blog piece highly critical of the appalling behavior coming out of Haredi communities in Jerusalem and the nearby town of Beit Shemesh.

The Hebrew word Haredi means fearful, and connotes, in this context, those Jews who self-identify as God-fearers. They differ from other Orthodox Jews in their determination to avoid involvement with the secular world—and the secular Jewish state—as much as possible. There are an estimated 600,000–700,000 Haredim in the country, making them 7–9 percent of the population.

The male Haredi population typically devotes decades to formal study of Torah, possibly constituting, according to experts, the largest single body of full-time Torah students in Jewish history. Few receive more than a bare-bones elementary education—if that—and would be unprepared to join the workforce even if they wanted to. Haredim tend to have many children (this is considered a great mitzvah and birth control is shunned) and their growth in numbers has been accompanied by an impressive growth in infrastructure. They are a poor community, with about 50 percent living below the poverty line and many of the rest clustering just above it.

A particularly contentious issue is their exemption from the compulsory military service required of other Israeli Jews. In the early days of the state, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt the roughly 400 full-time Torah students in the country at the time, on the assumption that their old-world way of life had no future in the Zionist homeland and so the problem would take care of itself. He was, of course, mistaken, and over the years their number has expanded to include tens of thousands. Much of the non-Haredi Jewish population considers the exemption blatantly unfair, especially given Israel’s difficult security situation, but Haredim claim that the merit of their Torah study in fact protects Israel.

An important factor in Haredi consciousness is the ongoing trauma of the Holocaust. During the 1930s, Haredi leaders did not recognize what was coming and counseled their flock to remain in Europe, where they became easy prey and the great centers of Orthodox Jewish life were wiped out. Haredim today see themselves as morally obligated to reconstruct the world that was lost and which they “remember” in highly idealized form. Their success is by now self-evident.

In a prescient study published in 1991 by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, sociologist Menachem Friedman described both the success of Israeli Haredim in rebuilding and the impending crisis they faced, a dialectic that does much to explain recent developments. True, Haredi Judaism recouped its numbers and created a counterculture based on “devotional study, modesty, family stability, personal responsibility, and mutual assistance,” but it is Israel’s hard-working non-Haredi population that supports it through the welfare state and an expanding economy that provides employment to Haredi wives. Increasingly, Friedman noted, the weight of Haredi dependency was becoming unbearable not only externally, by evoking the growing resentment of other sectors of the population, but also internally, attracting young Haredim to seek a place in the Israeli labor market despite the isolationist policies that still officially guide the community.

The dialectic is playing out much as he predicted, as many Haredim wonder if it is still necessary to maintain economic dependency and social self-segregation. Now, more than two decades after Friedman wrote, there are numerous Haredi websites, maintained over the objections of the leadership, that enable Haredim to communicate candidly about their society without revealing their names. Also, over a thousand young men serve in an IDF infantry unit called Netzah Yehudah that is designed to meet the special religious needs of Haredi soldiers. Hundreds more serve in other units throughout the armed forces.

An AJC leadership group from Chicago had the opportunity recently to observe the deeper processes at work in Haredi society at a meeting with Rabbi Yaakov Asher, the forward-looking mayor of the Haredi city of Bnei Brak. A punctiliously observant Haredi Jew, Asher is hard at work developing high-tech industrial parks to grow the city’s tax base and create technological educational opportunities to raise its standard of living. There is a groundswell of demand from the population he serves.

Yet another example is Rabbi Haim Amsellem, a member of Knesset closely in touch with the grass roots, who was thrown out of the Sephardi Haredi Shas party when he questioned stringent conversion policies and suggested that only a small elite group of yeshiva students should retain the army exemption while other Haredim should serve in the army and prepare for careers. Amsellem met with AJC in New York several months ago to speak about the new political party he was organizing. His supporters suggest he may attract as much as 6% of the vote, although that remains to be seen. What is indisputable is that the angry denunciations Haredi leaders have hurled at Amsellem show he has touched a nerve in that society.

People like Asher and Amsellem, who are attuned to the need of younger people to escape from impoverished isolationism, differ radically from the traditional Haredi leadership, which is largely comprised of men in their nineties and above who have little contact with the outside world.

It may well be that the recent rash of hysterical incidents—all happening where Haredim are forced into contact with broader Israeli society—are not the aggressive action of a confident community seeking to dominate its surroundings, but rather the rearguard action of the weakest elements of a subculture in the deep crisis of transition foretold by Friedman. A wise course would be to give positive reinforcement to those elements in the Haredi world that seek a rapprochement with the larger society around them.

Date: 1/13/2012 12:00:00 AM
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