Haredim – the Hebrew word means “god-fearing” – are the most orthodox Jews in Israel. In communities in Jerusalem and elsewhere an estimated 600,000 people follow a devout and fundamentalist lifestyle according to halacha (Jewish religious law), cut off in many ways from the modern, secular world.
Ultra-orthodox communities in pre-Holocaust eastern Europe and Palestine were hostile to Zionism – the idea that Jews could live in their own independent, secular nation because only the advent of the Messiah could “return” them to their biblical Holy Land. But since 1948 different Haredi groups have reached an accommodation with the state of Israel and its institutions.
Supporters of the Agudat Yisrael party, for example, have been represented in parliament and government. At the other end of the spectrum, radical members of the fringe anti-Zionist Neturei Karta support Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas. Many thousands of Haredi yeshiva (seminary) students are exempt from military service – a source of resentment for secular Israelis. Virtually no women serve.
Haredim are poor compared with other Israeli Jews: 60% of Haredi men do not have regular jobs and prefer religious study. More than 50% live below the poverty line and receive state benefits compared with 15% of the rest of the population. A separate education system is heavily subsidised. Haredim are also young, with families of seven to eight children common. Haredi men wear black or caftans and fur-lined hats on holidays, even in scorching heat. Women cover their heads and dress modestly.
Self-segregated Haredi neighbourhoods are closed off by barriers on the sabbath and festivals to prevent the passage of vehicles – hence the fury over the decision by Jerusalem’s secular mayor to open parking facilities outside the Old City.
There are tensions between Haredim and non-Haredi Orthodox Jews – the pro-settlement National Religious Party in particular – as well as between Haredi and secular Jews over issues such as Jewish conversions, civil marriage and gay rights.
Haredi practice forbids TV and films, reading secular newspapers and using the internet for non-business purposes. Recently a Haredi paper digitally altered photographs of the newly installed Israeli cabinet to replace two female ministers with pictures of men. Arnon Sofer, a leading demographer, predicts that Haredim will constitute 20% of Israel’s Jewish population by 2020.
This is a must read article for anyone who is trying to grapple with the Haredi challenge. As one who sees equal burden sharing as a high value along with economic participation and an end to religious coercion, I still think the authors raise some provocative points about how hard this is to achieve. Israel often seems to be a test-bed for the law of unintended consequences and I wonder if we shouldn’t be cautious about repeating past mistakes and pushing too hard without thinking it through. I’m glad there are finally political parties with the courage to force this debate. In the long term, a successful formula will take compromises from everyone, even those who don’t see any reason to compromise now. It doesn’t pay to win the battle but lose the war.
The original writer of this article propose something more radical- does it make sense to have a state inhabited by people who have no loyalty to its fundamental principles? Israel was reestablished as a free society, not a theocracy, and certainly not as a Polish or Lithuanian shtetl. Bring back the idea of a loyalty oath, that includes army service as a provision, and if they refuse, they can go live on Park Heights Avenue in Pikesville or in Golders Green or on Avenue M in Flatbush-Brooklyn-New York.