How the haredi Orthodox are changing Israel

JTA Staff

This Q&A is adapted from one of four public conversations about the future of Israel being held every Wednesday at noon ET in a collaboration between JTA and the Israel Democracy Institute in the lead-up to Israel’s March 23 elections. The program is being funded by the Marcus Foundation. To register for the upcoming sessions, please sign up here.

Israel’s haredi population is growing rapidly, with long-term political, economic and social consequences for the country.

How are haredim changing Israel, and how is Israel managing their integration into mainstream society? Does Israel’s experience hold any lessons for the American Jewish community?

The Q&A below, which has been condensed and lightly edited, was adapted from a recent public Zoom conversation featuring Gilad Malach, director of IDI’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program, which provides the Israeli government with policy proposals for integrating haredim into Israeli society while allowing them to preserve their unique identity, and Nechumi Yaffe, a researcher in the program and a faculty member at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy.

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This session was led by JTA Opinion Editor Laura Adkins.

JTA: What do we mean when we say haredi?

Yaffe: The main characteristic of the haredi community, a social group derived from an ideological movement that started in the 18th century, is segregation from the Western world. Once the Enlightenment started and Jews began drifting away from a religious lifestyle, the rabbis felt that the best way to maintain religious commitment was to segregate from the secular world. This segregation happens in different communities in different ways, and it’s constantly changing.

Malach: The central difference between the modern, secular world and ultra-Orthodox society is that the ultra-Orthodox are focused on the world to come: collecting mitzvot in this world for the Eternal Life. We believe there is progress in humanity, not just technological but in terms of growing equality and democracy and improving the world. But the haredi world believes in decline over generations. Ultra-Orthodox people focus on studying old, religious things, much of it written 2,000 years ago.

All over the world, ultra-Orthodox people live in enclave culture, with their own educational systems, community systems, even their own kashrut authorities, in order to be segregated.

In Israel, ultra-Orthodox society has become a ‘society of learners’: Most of the men study Torah most of their lives, which is different from elsewhere around the world. So in Israel, the haredi educational system doesn’t include secular studies because they feel they don’t need it, women participate in a high level in the labor market because someone needs to earn money for their families, and haredim need state support.

What are some of the characteristics that distinguish haredim from Israel’s national religious community?

Yaffe: Unlike in America, where the difference between haredim and Modern Orthodox is more of a spectrum on which people move according to their exposure to the world and adherence to halachic interpretation, in Israel the groups are very distinct, not just ideologically but geographically and culturally. A key component is their approach to the state. Religious Zionists see the State of Israel as an expression of their spiritual and religious life, a way to actualize their Jewishness. Many are very strict in their Torah study and halachic observance.

The haredi community, starting in Europe, was very skeptical toward Zionism, seeing it as antithetical to religious life. While haredi society is engaged with the state, it attaches no spiritual importance to it and to varying degrees does not respect it.

Malach: The other main distinction is their attitude toward modernity. The national religious, which can also be called Modern Orthodox, have a positive attitude toward modernity, to science. In ultra-Orthodox society, you need to listen to your rabbi not just in religious matters but also on how to vote in the Knesset. If the state says something about COVID restrictions, you listen to the rabbis. If you are Modern Orthodox, you listen to the expert.

What are some of the tensions between haredim and other Israelis over service in the Israel Defense Forces?

Malach: There were some haredim who served in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. At that time, the political and spiritual leaders of the community asked Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for an opportunity to allow yeshiva students to continue their studies. This was three years after the Holocaust, and Ben-Gurion said OK. At the time there were a few hundred. But ultra-Orthodox society quickly realized that many of those who serve in the army cease being religious, yet people who learn Torah don’t just stay in the community but become more learned and religious than their parents. So the whole society shifted to yeshiva study over army service.

Secular and Modern Orthodox Israelis have a lot of anger that the ultra-Orthodox get this exemption from the army. This is one of the reasons we’re going to elections again and again, because of disagreement over a new draft law.

How can one be anti-Zionist or non-Zionist while still benefiting from the state?

Yaffe: Zionism as a movement started as a national endeavor that was very much aligned with European ideas about national movements at the time. Zionism was very much a secular endeavor. It wasn’t a Jewish development, even though it used Jewish nostalgia and Jewish ideas. Rabbis saw it as a big threat to religious life because it was the source of a great drift away from religiousness at the time. Zionism was the first expression of Jewish identity that did not have a religious component. Zionism is still viewed by haredim as a threat to religious life.

Part of the reason why the haredi community is so against the army is because it embodies the idea that Jews fighting for independence enabled the return to Zion, not the Messiah coming on a donkey. It is a big conflict for a lot of religious people that very secular people established the state.

Haredim today view Zionism as an ongoing threat, even though they are stronger numerically and more religious than ever before. Every haredi views himself as at risk that the world is out to get him. Haredi literally means fearful, anxious. The feeling is that if we don’t fight back and cling to segregation, we’re just going to be become secular.

To what extent is there resistance to following COVID-19 restrictions in haredi Israel, and is the resistance coming from the grassroots or leaders?

Yaffe: I’m haredi. When COVID-19 started, a very big famous rabbi, who I thought was very misinformed, said, ‘You don’t stop learning Torah because some people think there’s a danger.’ I think that laid the groundwork for this attitude that we don’t have to obey the restrictions. All in all, a big part of the community — not all the community; the haredi Sephardi-Mizrahi community very much kept the restrictions, and some of the Lithuanians as well —but all in all the Hasidic world was just not following the health regulations.

Nechumi Yaffe, a professor at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, participates in a Zoom conversation hosted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the IDI on haredim in Israel, Feb. 24, 2021. (JTA)

Malach: This is a very good example of the idea that from the ultra-Orthodox point of view, you need to obey the rabbis. They are the authority, not the state. Some Lithuanian yeshivish rabbis said education was of primary importance, so they continued Torah study. For some Hasidic communities, having weddings was the important thing, so they saw a need to continue that.

At the beginning, Israeli authorities thought maybe the lack of adherence to COVID-19 restrictions was a problem of lack of communication. But since then we realized it’s bigger than that. It’s do we look at what’s good for our community or the State of Israel? A lot of haredi communities said we know it might be dangerous, but we will pay a very high spiritual price if we are not gathering in synagogues or yeshivot or at weddings. So for us as a community it’s better to pray and pay this price. But they didn’t think of the price the whole State of Israel pays in lockdowns and other economic costs. Most people in Israel are very upset about this.

Despite these tensions, haredi parties are part of nearly every governing coalition led by secular parties. Why?

Malach: The irony is that the haredim are the secular authority because they’re part of the government. The health minister for the first half year of COVID was an ultra-Orthodox man. These contradictions are very interesting.

The reason haredi parties are usually part of the coalition is that they aren’t very interested in left, right and center. They play the role of kingmaker. Their demands are not connected to classical political questions of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, or even economic issues. Specifically they are concerned with two things: the needs of the community and issues of religion and state. Haredim are almost always part of the governing coalition, right or left.

Why is Reform and Conservative Judaism generally sidelined by Israel’s religious establishment?

Yaffe: When the State of Israel was established, there was no alternative religious conception to Orthodox. This was how the game was originally established. And since the haredim are still the majority of religious Israelis, they still have the upper hand and they use it. They have the power.

I grew up haredi and heard all about how bad Reform is and how much worse it is than being secular or non-Jewish. But when I spent time in America and understand the culture better, I saw how much more nuanced and beautiful it is.

But in Israel we’re talking about a different culture. We live in the Middle East. It’s a very religious neighborhood. And we don’t have Indonesian-style Islam; we have ISIS as neighbors. It’s not just the geographical location, it’s a state of mind. It’s a very traditional mindset. Many Israelis, even nonharedim and secular, don’t see Reform as representative of what Judaism is about. I’m struck when even secular people tell me this. The Reform movement just doesn’t speak to the Israeli culture.

Malach: The next election may bring a Reform rabbi to the Knesset for the first time; he’s running in the Labor Party and has a realistic prospect of getting in. The haredim will ban him. They won’t talk to him. You might ask: ‘But you’re both religious people. Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members communicate with the secular ones.’ But that’s because the ultra-Orthodox are focused on religion. They won’t even communicate with a Reform Knesset member who has a differing view on religion. It might be very interesting, especially if Labor is part of the coalition.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Israeli haredim?

Malach: The main issue when we as policymakers say that ultra-Orthodox society is a great challenge to the State of Israel is not about money the state spends on ultra-Orthodox society. It’s about the very low percentage of ultra-Orthodox participation in the labor market coupled with their growing numbers. This has significant implications for Israel’s tax base. If 10% of Israelis live the way the ultra-Orthodox live, the state can handle that. But if it’s 25%, that’s a great economic and even social challenge. The state will collect less taxes, and the state needs that money to pay for health, infrastructure, security.

Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, participates in the Zoom conversation on Israeli haredim, Feb. 24, 2021. (JTA)

Because of their high birthrates, the haredi population is younger than average. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has accelerated the death rate among older haredim. What are some of the implications of this?

Yaffe: COVID does not really affect young people in a significant way, and the haredim are an extremely young community. I think this explains a big part of the cavalier attitude toward COVID among haredim. And while many rabbis have died, there are still plenty of rabbinic leaders and leaders in waiting.

One of the more notable aspects of COVID is that for the first time the haredi community – its leaders, its rabbis, its politicians – expressed self-criticism. Since the haredi community always tells itself we’re under attack, there is no self-criticism. But the way some community members behaved was so negligent that some people spoke up. They said ‘these are not our values, this is not how we educate our children.’ This is a great development for the community because without criticism we’re never going to rectify our shortcomings.

Another thing that came out of COVID is wider use of the internet, since we started working from home and interacting on Zoom. This undermines the walls the haredi community has built around itself. It brings more complexity and nuance that might influence the community in a healthier way.

Malach: The economic challenges of the COVID period might cause more haredim to go and join the labor market or pursue higher education. And the internet is not just a way to get information, but makes it much easier to take the steps necessary to join the labor market.

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