Recent media focus on the segregation of women on buses passing through ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods and other outrages against women in the public space has created the perception that Israeli democracy is under imminent threat by religious fundamentalism. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to warn a recent gathering of Israeli and American policy-makers in Washington that Israel was becoming more like Iran.
Yet, that perception obscures a far more complicated reality. For all the fears here of an unstoppable fundamentalist onslaught against Israeli modernity, ultra-Orthodoxy itself is in deep crisis – a crisis created, in part, by its astonishing success.
In the years after the Holocaust, which destroyed the centres of Jewish religious life in Eastern Europe, ultra-Orthodoxy was widely eulogized as a fading remnant. Yet, with heroic persistence, the remnant rebuilt its communal life. Today, the ultra-Orthodox – known as Haredim, those who fear God – are about 10 per cent of Israeli society, with the country’s highest birth rate. Some demographers predict that, if current trends continue, Haredim could reach 30 per cent of the population within 50 years.
Most Haredi young men don’t work or serve in the military – mandatory for other young Israeli men – but devote themselves to religious study, supported by their wives and state subsidies. Historically, there has never been a Jewish community wholly centred around full-time Torah study. Indeed, Jewish tradition is replete with warnings against Torah scholars avoiding employment.
As an initial response to the Holocaust, the Haredi violation of that ethos was perhaps understandable. But Israeli society can no longer afford to subsidize the massive Haredi exclusion from the work force or the military.
The real threat to Israeli society comes not from the acts of Haredi extremists but from the distorted relationship of the Haredi community to the state. Haredim not only exclude themselves from the responsibilities of Israeli citizenship but demand that the mainstream subsidize their separatism. Thanks to Israel’s dysfunctional coalition system, Haredi parties have been able to extract wholesale draft deferments for their young men and vast subsidies for their institutions.
But with the economic strains of recent years, government subsidies are declining and increasing numbers of Haredi young men are joining the work force; some are even joining the military. The Haredi community is hardly monolithic, and is divided by its attitudes toward the secular state. It is, in part, the growing involvement of some Haredim in mainstream Israeli society that has led to an extremist backlash among others. This new wave of fanaticism isn’t a sign of self-confidence but of desperation.
The first steps now being taken toward integrating Haredim into the work force and the military need to be intensified. That depends in large part on the major political parties joining together to change the current coalition system, which allows minority parties to force their will on the majority.
Most of all, it depends on the Israeli mainstream’s reclaiming its ideological self-confidence. Haredi leaders depict their community as the repository of Jewish values, and the rest of the country as lost in hedonistic temptation. In fact, modern Israelis are no less committed than Haredim to a vision of an authentic Jewish life. Their Zionist and democratic values have created a state capable of defending Jewish interests and of drawing immigrants from radically different backgrounds back into a single Jewish people, nurtured by a vital Hebrew culture. The response of the Jewish mainstream to the Holocaust wasn’t a retreat into self-ghettoization but rejoining the community of nations as a self-confident Jewish collective.
The Haredi community has been at best indifferent, and often hostile, to those historic achievements.
The Haredim are an idealistic community whose members often live in voluntary poverty for the sake of their faith. They have created an extraordinary network of educational and charitable institutions. Their spiritual challenge to other Jews is to live one’s Judaism with greater commitment.
The secular socialist founders of the state were largely indifferent or hostile to religion. And so a generation of non-Orthodox Israelis was raised largely ignorant of Judaism. The result was a further empowering of the Orthodox and especially the ultra-Orthodox, who became, by default, the guardians of the faith. While Zionism freed the Jewish people, Judaism remained in the ghetto.
But that is beginning to change. Increasing numbers of Israelis are taking responsibility for their Judaism. Non-Orthodox prayer and religious study groups are spreading. Israeli artists, especially musicians, are drawing on Jewish tradition for inspiration. For the first time, new forms of non-Orthodox Israeli Judaism are emerging.
The non-Haredi Orthodox community, known as religious Zionists, has a crucial role to play, too. Although some religious Zionists have become increasingly extreme in their religious practice, most want to remain part of the mainstream. At a recent rally against religious extremism in the town of Beit Shemesh, most protesters were moderate Orthodox Jews.
In reclaiming its Jewish confidence and its political will, the Israeli mainstream can begin to transform its unbalanced relationship with the Haredi community. The good news is that growing numbers of Israelis are angry enough to fight for the changes on which the future viability of the Jewish state may depend.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow of the Engaging Israel project at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
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