The Haredi Revolution
Tue, 05/29/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
A growing number of religious Jews are serving in the IDF.  Abir Sultan/Flash90/JTA
A growing number of religious Jews are serving in the IDF. Abir Sultan/Flash90/JTA

Noah Efron, a young American-born graduate student at Tel Aviv University, was standing in the cafeteria line, just before the outbreak of the first Iraq War, when he overheard one female student say to another, “The best thing for the country would be if there was a chemical attack on Bnei Brak [the largest haredi population center] before they get new gas masks [for bearded men].” The Silver Spring, Md., native had never before experienced anti-Semitism, and was shocked to hear a Jew talk about the salutary effect of gassing other Jews.

More than a decade later, Efron, today a Tel Aviv City Council member and professor at Bar Ilan University, wrote “Real Jews: Secular vs. Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel,” on the depth of the hatred felt by secular Israelis for the haredim. Efron knows the reasons that Israelis give for that hatred — they don’t serve in the army; they don’t work — and largely agrees with them. Yet, he finds in the book that the hatred expressed in the media is far in excess of anything that can be explained by the reasons given. For instance, why did explicitly anti-haredi parties capture seven out of 13 city council seats in Modiin’s first municipal elections, at a time when not a single haredi lived in Modiin?

“The image of haredim in Israel’s popular culture,” Efron concludes, “bears a striking resemblance to European anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews.”

That is not as surprising as it may sound, as the early Zionist thinkers tended to accept the Enlightenment critique of Jewish “degradation,” in pursuit of their goal of creating a “new Jew.” As a positive Zionist identity has waned, writes Efron, hatred of haredim has become “the defining element of Israeli identity,” the measuring rod against which secular Israelis determine how far they “have evolved,” compared to the haredi “fossils from a time when Jews were weak, primitive and pathetic.”

Haredim occupy a similar position in Israeli society to that once held by Jews in Christian Europe: They deny the central value of the dominant society. “Haredi traits of voluntary poverty, anti-macho quietism, pasty-faced bookishness, and learning-uber-alles,  unnerve the rest of us,” suggests Efron, “because they stand as a genuine challenge to the mall-above-all values we tend to take for granted.”

That discomfort is fanned by a media composed of the most secular elements in Israeli society, Efron says. Israelis habitually “overspend the windfall they imagine would result if the haredim were put in their place,” by attributing every budgetary shortfall to monies allocated to haredi institutions.

The last few months have been rife with media incitement. In January, on the eve of Yair Lapid’s entrance into politics at the head of a new anti-haredi party, the Channel Two anchor showed a documentary from Ramat Beit Shemesh, detailing the harassment of an 8-year-old Modern Orthodox girl on the way to school by a group of self-described haredi “zealots.” The video sickened all who saw it, and the perpetrators were repeatedly denounced in the best-selling magazine in the haredi community (by myself among others).

What viewers were not told, however, was that the events in question had taken place four months earlier, and that an end to the strife had largely been brokered. Nor did they learn that the zealots are a tiny minority even within the overflow from Meah Shearim populating that particular neighborhood.

Around the same time, a young female journalist became an instant celebrity when she boarded a “mehadrin” (separate seating) bus in a haredi neighborhood in Ashdod bound for exclusively haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and sought to create her own reality show by sitting and singing in the men’s section, until the bus driver asked her to get off and summoned the police.

The mehadrin buses were created by Egged to prevent private haredi companies from competing for passengers, and they are supposed to be only for inter-city travel between haredi population centers and intra-city travel between haredi neighborhoods.

Meanwhile media outlets from around the world called to ask me about reports of haredim insisting that men and women walk on separate sides of the street in their neighborhoods. Yet the only example of that was during the week of Sukkot, when throngs flocking to the nighttime Simchas Bais HaShoeva celebrations fill the narrow main street of Meah Shearim. The separation was to prevent men and women being crushed against strangers of the opposite sex — something desired by both the haredi male and female visitors.

Beneath the surface, there is another story that the media seldom tells, and about which American Jews know nothing. According to Guttman Institute surveys of Jewish observance and belief, even self-described “secular” Israelis keep far more traditional Jewish rituals than Reform and Conservative Jews in America. In recent years, secular and traditional parents have registered over 10,000 of their children in haredi-sponsored educational programs. A cable station that provides 24/6 of religious programming is widely watched, and close to 10,000 non-religious Jews learn weekly over the phone with haredi study partners. Over 20 percent of Israeli Jews say that they have come closer to their Judaism in recent years.

Though tradition-based haredi society is by nature evolutionary and not revolutionary, it is undergoing rapid change, fulfilling economist Glen Yago’s observation: “Trends that can’t go on forever, won’t.”

Many haredim can no longer feed their families, and as a consequence, they are entering the workforce or training to do so and even joining special programs created by the IDF.

The changes in haredi society offer the possibility for reconciliation between the haredim and the general population over the two issues that have most divided them: army service and economic productivity. Today there are close to 3,000 haredi young men and women in academic degree programs. On their campuses in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, Israel’s leading universities offer courses to over 1,000 haredi students, and colleges have established programs for haredim in a number of professions, such as law and accounting.

Mercaz Chareidi Institute of Technology, the largest group of vocational training centers, has more than doubled its enrollment to close to 2,000 over the past four years. These are not rinky-dink programs; they offer training in architecture, civil engineering, computer programming and networking, with national exams.

Much of this expansion has been made possible by the infusion of millions of dollars annually from abroad to provide scholarships for haredim — mostly men — pursuing academic or vocational degrees.

The second area of rapid change has been in army service, both in the number of 18-year-olds entering Nahal Haredi, which is now over battalion strength (1,000 troops) and will soon have its first reserve unit, and in the number of older, married men entering special programs developed primarily by the air force and IDF intelligence. The growth of the latter has been rapid and offers the greatest possibility for expansion. In return for sophisticated training in an environment that takes careful account of the religious needs of the haredi enlistees, haredim are helping the IDF meet some of its most critical manpower needs. The re-enlistment rate of married haredi men in these programs has been the highest in the IDF.

The more haredim in uniform, the less military service will be viewed by the community as somehow not a proper haredi activity, and the easier it will be for younger, unmarried haredim, who do not see themselves pursuing 12-hour-a-day yeshiva learning schedules, to join combat units within Nahal Haredi.

Whether these trends continue or are reversed will depend to a large extent on the wisdom of the secular leadership. If it focuses on incentives for entry into the workforce, like a negative income tax, and develops frameworks within the IDF to accommodate haredi religious needs, the trends will continue.

But if in the name of “fairness” or “equality,” secular leaders try to speed the process through highly coercive efforts at social engineering, they will only reinforce the most conservative elements within the haredi community and provide ammunition for those who claim that the real agenda is to destroy the citadels of Torah learning. If that happens, the haredi community will circle the wagons more tightly and stubbornly resist, perhaps setting back current trends by a decade or more.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new broad governing coalition, which can pretty much do what it wants, must decide whether it wants to cut off its nose to spite its face.  

Jonathan Rosenblum is director of Jewish Media Resources and a columnist with the Jerusalem Post and Mispacha Magazine. He is also the author of eight biographies of modern Torah leaders.