Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Problem

Mea Shearim
Haredi Jews tend to be more hawkish politically, so their growth may be yet another obstacle to reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. Eduardo Castaldo

Rachel Weinstein calls it her Rosa Parks moment. On a recent morning, the 38-year-old Israeli boarded a bus to a local shopping center in her town. It was the same line she takes regularly, but on this day an ultra-Orthodox passenger directed her to the back of the bus where, she noticed, the women were sitting separately. “He was actually addressing my husband, who boarded with me,” she recounted to Newsweek. “He wouldn’t even talk to me.” Weinstein lives in Beit Shemesh, a town of both religious and nonreligious Jews where the population of ultra-Orthodox—the most theologically rigid of Judaism’s denominations—has surged in recent years.

Instead of complying, Weinstein took a seat several rows behind the driver and held her ground, channeling the spirit of that American civil-rights icon from more than a half century ago. A native of New York City who describes herself as modern Orthodox, Weinstein immigrated to Israel earlier this year to live among “like-minded Jews,” she says, not extremists. When the anger around her felt menacing—one woman charged from the back of the bus to berate her for not showing sufficient respect—Weinstein clutched a ring of keys in her purse and prepared to swing it if things turned violent. After several tense minutes, she got off at her stop and wept.

In Beit Shemesh and elsewhere across the country, some ultra-Orthodox Jews have tried to impose a kind of communal piety—a strict code of behavior that includes gender segregation on buses, with men in the front and women in the back. For most Israelis, this zealousness is off-putting. Founded by secular Jews who envisaged a modern, egalitarian state, Israel has all the trappings of a liberal society: progressive laws and cutting-edge universities, women in bikinis and women in business and politics. But it also has a fast-growing community that shuns modernity and views the world through the narrow prism of biblical warrant. Once a tiny minority, ultra-Orthodox Jews—also known as Haredim—now make up more than 10 percent of Israel’s population and 21 percent of all primary-school students. With the community’s fertility rate hovering at more than three times that of other Israeli Jews, demographers project that by 2034, about one in five Israelis will be ultra-Orthodox.

The impact will reach well beyond the neighborhood quarrels over segregated buses or modest attire—another Haredi preoccupation that has stirred tensions across Israel. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews lack the skills to work in a modern economy, having studied little or no math and science beyond primary school (their curriculum focuses almost entirely on religious texts such as the Torah and Talmud). As a result, more than 60 percent live below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent among non-Haredi Jews. Most also opt out of military service, which is compulsory for other Israelis. The net effect: as the Haredi community expands, the burden of both taxation and conscription falls on fewer and fewer Israelis. (Secular Israelis joke bitterly that one third of the country serves in the military, one third participates in the workforce, and one third pays taxes—but that it’s all the same third).

The country’s political landscape will also shift. According to pollsters, Haredim are consistently hawkish on the question of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, citing God’s covenant with Abraham granting Jews the land of Israel. Already the parties that represent them wield significant political power in Israel’s coalition-based system. If the demographic trends hold, the prospect of getting a majority in Israel to back the compromises required for a peace deal will narrow with each passing year. In the long run, says Dan Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University economist who heads the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, Israeli society will be poorer, less educated, and increasingly right wing.

The projections, of course, are just that—projections. A community’s behavior, including its fertility rates and employment patterns, tends to evolve over time. Even moderate shifts could affect the forecast. But ultra-Orthodox Jews are by definition averse to change. They dress in the same outfits as their 19th-century forebears—dark suits, frock coats, and wide-brimmed hats. And they hew fastidiously to practices that were laid out in texts thousands of years ago. For Weinstein, who has lived in proximity to Haredim at different times in her life, the drift seems, if anything, toward greater rigidity.

So how did the Haredim become Israel’s latest demographic worry? The answer, in part at least, dates back to the foundation of the state, when David Ben-Gurion made sweeping concessions to rabbis in exchange for their political support. Among other things, he agreed to Army exemptions for 18-year-old Haredim who wished to continue studying at religious seminaries instead of being called to serve.

The exemptions initially numbered in the hundreds but have now swelled, creating a backlog of secular resentment and setting Haredi men on a path that has proven hard to reroute: instead of employment, lifelong Torah study and support from the dole. According to recent labor surveys, some 65 percent of working-age men in the ultra-Orthodox community don’t have jobs and don’t want them, preferring to spend their days in the seminary. The cities they live in are some of the poorest in the country.

Meiron, Israel Most ultra-Orthodox Jews choose Torah study over work, and they lack the skills needed to compete in the modern world. Eduardo Castaldo

One of them is Modiin Illit, home to about 60,000 Haredim, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Built in the 1990s to help solve the housing shortage for ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem and elsewhere, it’s one of Israel’s fastest-growing cities. “Families here have 10 or more children, on average,” says Yehiel Sever, a spokesman for the community. The city winds along the slopes of several hills and has a synagogue or seminary on almost every block. What it noticeably lacks: parks and playgrounds. Nearly all of Modiin Illit’s residents, because of their low income, qualify for a 90 percent discount in city taxes, Sever says, making it difficult for the municipality to build public facilities or fund services.

The pace of growth in the city is significant not just because it helps perpetuate the poverty. Modiin Illit is actually a West Bank settlement, about a mile inside what Palestinians regard as the territory of their future state. In recent years, Modiin Illit and another Haredi city, Beitar Illit, have become the most populous settlements in the West Bank. And their large numbers lend increasing weight to the argument that the settler population is just too big for Israel to contemplate ceding the West Bank. “This area is so close to the green line,” says Avraham Kroizer, a resident, referring to the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. “It will never be given back.”

Kroizer, who is 33 and a rabbi, sees the secular angst regarding Haredim as mostly a case of cultural misunderstanding. He says ultra-Orthodox Jews contribute to Israeli society by raising Torah scholars, whose numbers vastly diminished in the Holocaust. “Studying Torah helps protect the Jewish people no less than serving in the Army,” he says. Kroizer’s three sons, like other Haredi youngsters, spend 70 percent of their school day on Torah and Talmud, and 30 percent on “secular studies”—math, history, and grammar (but no English and little science). After eighth grade, the students focus solely on religion. He hopes his boys will remain in seminary throughout their adult lives, but if they decide to enter the workforce, they could close the gaps with their secular brethren by taking adult education classes.

But Haredim are so cloistered, it’s hard to see how they could ever catch up. Kroizer says no one at Modiin Illit owns a television and few residents have computers. This past summer an entrepreneur persuaded rabbis in the city to allow him to open a cybercenter—three computers in a small room above a dingy shopping strip—where customers can access the Internet for about $5 an hour. The computers are reasonably new, but the Internet is filtered through a server that blocks access to all but a few dozen websites—mostly on religious instruction and family services. A search for news sites yielded just one hit—Haredi Jewish Daily News. Wikipedia and Yahoo came up as dead links. “It’s kosher Internet,” the woman behind the counter told me apologetically. “It’s very limited.”

Back in Beit Shemesh, another conflict has been brewing between the Haredim and their neighbors, this one over a school for girls. Opened in September, the school lies adjacent to apartments of Haredim, who complain they’re exposed to impurities when they open their windows. Their objections might seem more reasonable if these were secular students dressed in tight jeans and tank tops. But the girls, ages 6 to 12, are themselves from religiously observant homes—not ultra-Orthodox but modern Orthodox. Their uniforms consist of long skirts and loose-fitting, long-sleeve shirts but not the stockings that are requisite for Haredi women appearing in public, winter or summer.

When the school year began several months ago, Haredi men gathered outside to protest, some hurling insults at the girls like “prutza” (whore) and “shiksa” (the Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman). The taunting scared the students but also left them bewildered: one resident told me his daughter initially thought the men were yelling “pizza” and “schnitzel.” In Washington, where criticism of the Jewish state is a political taboo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly told a closed forum last month that the fanaticism made Israel look like Iran. Perhaps embarrassed by the comparison, thousands of Israelis flocked to Beit Shemesh last week to support the girls.

The Haredi community is far from homogenous, and the protesters at the girls’ school are unquestionably at the extreme end of the band—a minority within a minority. One of the most vocal Haredi opponents of the school, Moshe Friedman, says that Israel itself was an abomination (because its laws were based on something other than the Torah) and posed a challenge to real Judaism. “It’s too bad Herzl and his people didn’t create Israel in Uganda instead of bringing their defilement to this country,” he said, referring to Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl.

As is often the case in closed societies, the extremists tend to set the tone. And they can be particularly hard on those fellow Haredim who might lean toward moderation. Chaim Amsalem, who had been a lawmaker with the largest ultra-Orthodox faction in Parliament, Shas, learned just how hard when he started advocating last year for Haredim to serve in the military and join the workforce. “This poverty is killing the Haredi community,” he says. “There’s no reason Haredim can’t have regular careers and continue studying Torah in their spare time.” For taking a stand, Amsalem was ejected from Shas and received threatening messages. But he says his position is quietly gaining ground among the ultra-Orthodox.

If not, the outlook is bleak. Ben-David, the economist, has charts that show Israel’s future based on present-day trends: an economy that lags behind most developed countries, rising welfare costs, and a less educated population. He says the country now known for its startups and Nobel Prize winners will suffer from an acute brain drain. Even Israel’s security would be affected. “You can’t maintain this first-world Army that we need with a third-world economy.”

The solution, he says, is some kind of bargain with Haredim to replace the one Ben-Gurion struck 60 years ago that begins with revamping the curriculum in ultra-Orthodox schools. Whether politicians are willing to take on the Haredi parties is an open question. “We have to stand up for a modern society, and we have to develop a backbone,” Ben-David says. The alternative might be to quietly take that seat in the back of the bus.

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