Israel’s struggle over Jewish identity
How tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews are shaping Israeli politics:
Why is there tension?
Israel’s Jewish population is united in the belief that Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. Beyond that, though, there are deep divisions among secular Jews, the ultra-Orthodox, and the religious Zionists, and the conflict shapes political arguments over Israel’s future as a democracy. Israelis are about 60 percent secular or traditional; about 12 percent Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, adhering to strict observance and gender segregation; and perhaps 9 percent religious Zionist, believing that Jews have a divine mandate to rule all the lands of ancient Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza. The other roughly 20 percent of citizens are Israeli Arabs—mostly Muslims with a small number of Druze and Christians. While religious Zionists have largely driven Israeli policy in the past decade by forcing expansion of West Bank settlements, it is the special status of the Haredim that currently dominates Israeli politics—particularly the exemption from military service that the ultra-Orthodox have traditionally enjoyed.
What do the Haredim believe?
The Haredim maintain separate communities, following strict Jewish law and rejecting modern customs. Many do not support the existence of an Israeli state, but believe that Jews must wait for the Messiah to come and end their exile. Some Haredim refuse to vote, although most ultra-Orthodox men do accept the small government stipend they get for studying the Torah. The ultra-Orthodox also observe strict gender segregation in public places, to the point of demanding men-only buses and separate library hours for boys and girls. Men wear black coats and hats, while women must dress with extreme modesty; ultra-Orthodox men have harassed and thrown stones at those who don’t—even little girls. (See box.) It’s the women, though, who are the breadwinners in most Haredi families, because the men tend to study Jewish scripture full-time. Yet because these women are poorly educated, they don’t earn much.
Are the ultra-Orthodox poor?
About 45 percent of Haredim fall below the poverty line—and they tend to have very large families. While the birthrate for Israel’s secular families is about 2.2 children per woman, it’s 7.1 for Haredim. That fuels rapid growth: Haredi now make up 12 percent of the population, but their number is set to double in the next 30 years. Add to that the growing population of Arab Israelis, who also tend to be poor, and the demographic trend is troubling. Economists say Israel may not continue to thrive when so many of its citizens lack access to the education and training needed for modern jobs.
Why don’t Haredim serve?
The Haredim were excused from military service in 1949 by Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. At the time, there were only 400 yeshiva students in all of Israel, and Ben-Gurion agreed that these young men should be allowed to study Torah full-time, in order to revive the tradition of yeshiva scholarship that had been all but wiped out in the Holocaust. But now there are nearly 1 million Haredim in Israel, and the exemption is seen as unfair by other citizens. “Why should the Haredi mother have her sons around her dinner table, while the secular mother has sleepless nights?” asks Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer. All other Jewish Israelis must serve. (Israeli Arabs are exempt, as are religious Druze.)
Could the Haredim lose that exemption?
A law passed by the Knesset in 2014 was supposed to phase out the exemption by requiring the military to draft increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox men each year. But the following year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needed the Haredi parties to form a governing coalition, so the measure was rolled back. Israel’s High Court has demanded that the government pass a new law requiring Haredim to serve, but that won’t happen while the ultra-Orthodox are in government. The issue torpedoed Netanyahu’s efforts to form a coalition after the April elections. His former ally and defense minister, Avigdor Liberman—whose ultranationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, represents mostly secular Russian-speaking Jews—refused to join the government unless the Haredim were excluded. Liberman had campaigned on the slogan, “Yes to a Jewish State. No to a state ruled by Jewish law.” Netanyahu couldn’t get a majority, and Israel had another round of elections in September.
Netanyahu again gets first crack at forming a coalition, but the religious and Haredi parties alone can’t give him a majority. Liberman, whose party could be essential to any coalition, wants a national unity government including the centrist Blue and White, the opposition party led by Benny Gantz. And President Reuven Rivlin, whose influence is mostly moral, has called for all four “main tribes” of Israel—the secular, the religious Zionists, the Haredim, and the Arabs—to work together. “There is a large group of regular Israelis in the middle,” said analyst Shmuel Rosner in Ma’ariv. “This is what they said for the second consecutive time: We want normalcy.” It’s not clear, however, that compromise is possible.
A culture war
Both secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews feel the other group is trying to impose its values on them. Secular Jews are annoyed that Orthodox rabbis have a state-sanctioned monopoly on performing marriages and conversions, and are appalled by Haredi sexism. In 2011, an ultra-Orthodox man in the mostly Haredi town of Beit Shemesh spat at an 8-year-old religious schoolgirl and called her a “whore”—an incident caught on video that became a national scandal. Last year, Haredi parties in government forced through a law barring most businesses from opening on the Sabbath. Haredim, meanwhile, say they are being forced to accept liberal values they find impious, such as gay rights and women’s equality. Yitzhak Pindrus, a Haredi member of Parliament, says he would prefer to be studying the Torah full-time, but had to run for office to protect his people from secular values. “We have been in an ongoing battle between the traditional Haredi community and secular Zionism,” he says. “We have no choice but to be in politics—without power, our voters don’t exist.” ■