An Orthodox challenge

Can Israel’s ultra-conservative communities join modern society?
August 22, 2012

An ultra-Orthodox family enjoys a rare Jerusalem snowfall. General education in Orthodox schools is “below Third World”

“The system just isn’t relevant to life,” says Asher Gold. He wears black trousers, a black velvet skullcap, and a pale lavender shirt, one shade from white, one shade away from the standard dress of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish male. The other four young men at the table are more circumspect about dissidence; they wear white shirts. The café where they’ve chosen to meet me is in a courtyard one flight down from street level in a Jerusalem commercial district: a place both public and removed from sight, appropriate for scathing words.

Gold, 25, is talking about the accepted course of ultra-Orthodox life in Israel, in which men devote much or all of adulthood to religious study rather than to making a living. “At some stage a person looks at the situation and says, ‘This just cannot continue,’” he says. “‘No one is throwing loaves of bread from heaven. You have to go to work.’”

“The manna,” says Elimelech, another of the men, “isn’t coming down.”

“There was an ideal society, a society that can’t exist in the real world, and yet it existed,” says a third.

“People lived in a utopia,” says Gold, “until the reality shattered.”

Other Israelis would dismiss the assertion that ultra-Orthodox society was ever a utopia, noting that the manna that feeds it comes not from heaven, but from the government, and that too much is still falling. But they would not disagree that ultra-Orthodoxy as lived in Israel has become unsustainable.

Ultra-Orthodoxy is a subculture whose members live by a stringent version of Jewish religious law and belief and who seek to keep surrounding society at arm’s length. The means of being a people apart include dressing distinctively, living in self-segregated neighbourhoods and maintaining separate schools, where sacred texts are the main subject of study. Today’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, marry early and have many children. In Israel, where the military draft is universal for other Jewish men and most Jewish women, the ultra-Orthodox have been largely exempt.

This summer the issue of everyone bearing an “equal burden” for national defence has boiled over in Israeli politics. Yet the conscription argument may be a diversion from the real economic and political crisis. The haredi community is overwhelmingly poor, underemployed, and dependent on the rest of Israel. It is also growing rapidly, creating an ever-larger weight for wider society to carry. Unless ultra-Orthodox education changes and haredim are integrated into the workplace, the Israeli economy could collapse. “We could lose the country,” as a leading Israeli economist, Dan Ben-David, warns.

At the margins of ultra-Orthodox society itself, a sense of impending economic disaster is growing. Yet a change of direction is fraught with challenges. It requires haredi society to brave integration. It requires the state to spend more money, not less, on the ultra-Orthodox in the near term. The longer the change is delayed, the more politically difficult it will be to carry out.

Unless there’s an internal political rebellion in the ultra-Orthodox community, the parliamentary power of haredi parties opposed to reform will keep growing for a simple reason: the haredi proportion of the electorate is climbing. “There is a democratic, demographic point of no return,” says Ben-David.

The fact that ultra-Orthodox parties have become loyal partners of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister and leader of the right-wing Likud party, is a further barrier to change. This summer Netanyahu sacrificed a coalition with the major centrist party, Kadima, rather than upset his haredi allies. The short-term payoff of support for his intransigent policies on peace and territory trumped seizing an opportunity for bringing the ultra-Orthodox into Israel’s economy. It was not an encouraging choice.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews comprise about a tenth of Israel’s population, depending on how statisticians identify who is haredi. While the Israeli population as a whole is expanding at 1.7 per cent a year, the haredi community grows 7 per cent annually. The average ultra-Orthodox woman in Israel will have 6.7 children, three times as many as other Israeli Jewish women, according to a government study.

As a result, the haredi community is strikingly young. An ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood can resemble a schoolyard, a land of children with a few adults looking on. On a visit one afternoon to Beitar Illit, a haredi settlement in the West Bank, I stepped into the lobby of a block of flats to check how many families lived there. I found 23 mailboxes. I also found two dozen preschool-aged girls playing—all dressed in long skirts and sleeves that came to their wrists—with one young mother watching them. Among primary school pupils in Israel, over a fifth are ultra-Orthodox. The schoolchildren are the oldsters: one out of every five haredim in Israel is an infant between the age of zero and four.

The rising number of haredim has a direct effect on conscription into the Israeli military. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has had a universal draft for the Jewish majority. Religious Jewish women may opt out and Jewish men engaged in full-time religious study can defer the draft, which haredi men normally do until they are too old to serve. A recent report by the research department of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, shows that in 2005, 8.4 per cent of Jewish men subject to the draft were exempted for religious studies. Last year, the number was 13 per cent—more than the number of men exempted for all other reasons.

As the proportion of Israeli men defending the country shrinks, discontent rises among those who serve and among their parents. “If we hear on the radio that a soldier was killed, it doesn’t make sense to me that part [of the public] doesn’t worry whether that’s my son,” Dan Meridor, the Intelligence Minister, softly told an audience of young haredi men at a recent interview evening in Jerusalem. The movement demanding that the government conscript haredim is not so soft-spoken; it calls itself “The Suckers.”

Yet the economic burden borne by the majority is more serious. It’s not a given that the army must grow with the population. But Israel’s economy definitely needs to expand, and has a harder time doing so when a significant minority will not or cannot work.

Again, numbers tell the story. In 1979, 21 per cent of ultra-Orthodox men aged between 35 and 54 were not employed. That was twice the proportion among other Jews. But things got much worse. By 2008, two-thirds of haredi men in that age bracket were not working for a living. Full-time religious study had become the most common occupation of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel.

Not surprisingly, 55 per cent of haredi families in Israel live below the poverty line, according to the most recent report by the government’s National Insurance Institute. The community is deeply dependent on government funds and private philanthropy. Men who study receive small stipends, paid for with a mix of state assistance and donations. Teaching in state-funded schools and yeshivot (Talmudic academies) and working for the state rabbinate are important sources of employment.

An education gap makes finding other kinds of work hard, especially for men. Boys and girls attend separate schools. Religion dominates the curriculum, especially in boys’ schools. At Nitei Meir, an elementary school in Beitar Illit, boys study religious subjects from 8:30 to 2:30, then have two hours of general studies. Rabbi Yosef Rozovsky, the educational director, told me that the curriculum includes arithmetic, Hebrew, and history. Civics is not on the list. Nor is English, a requirement for many jobs and for higher education. “The moment a boy studies English, he is exposed to the wider world and naturally he leaves religion,” explained Nitei Meir’s headmaster, Rabbi Eran Ben-Porat. The school’s purpose is to shape a pious personality, not to prepare boys for worldly pursuits, or participation in democratic society.

Many elementary schools provide even less general education, though some parents are aware that such schooling leads to a vocational dead end. One evening, in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, I listened to the pained musings of a haredi man in his late thirties. He had expected to have a “Torah position” by his age, a job based on his religious studies. But Torah positions have turned scarce; he’d found only part-time teaching work. Speaking carefully, he criticised people within his community who trust God will provide, yet he sent his sons to a school that allocates just 45 minutes a day to general studies. That is the new norm, he said. He had organised a private English class for his son and several other boys. It was an investment in his son’s future and a quiet act of rebellion. Before I left his home, he insisted I sign a statement that I would write nothing that could identify him, lest his criticisms hurt his chances of arranging marriages for his children.

Boys normally continue on from primary school to yeshivot that teach only religious subjects—mainly Talmud, the 1500-year-old compendium of rabbinic debates of law and belief. Their studies fit the community’s ideals. But for the surrounding society, they have achieved no more than an eighth-grade education, and really less. Girls’ schools usually have a wider curriculum, since haredim see Talmud study as a male realm. Overall, says Ben-David, the economist who is head of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the level of general education in haredi schools is “below Third World.”

In Israel’s high-tech driven economy, jobs for the undereducated are scarce. In his Jerusalem office, with graphs on his computer screen, Ben-David described the trends to me in a mix of wonder and despair. The good news is that over the past 40 years, employment has risen among Israeli women. But the percentage of men with jobs shows a steady descent. Breaking down the figures shows that employment has held steady among men with college-level education. Among those with less, it has fallen. The less schooling, the bigger the drop. For men with eight years or less of school, the employment rate is now less than 60 per cent.

Even among Israelis with jobs, says Ben-David, productivity isn’t keeping up with the developed world. The drag comes from the parts of the economy that employ the less educated. The combined effect, Ben-David says, is that “Israel’s growth path is falling behind western countries.”

The haredi crisis is just one reason that Israel is losing the economic race. For decades, governments have invested too little in education, part of a trend of trying to shrink government that has reduced the country’s only real resource: educated minds.

But the wider economic picture has serious implications for the haredim. Graduates of ultra-Orthodox schools have an ever-smaller chance of making a living. If they do get jobs, they’re likely to be in sectors that drag the economy back. Poverty will rise, but so will the costs to the country of helping the poor. The most educated young Israelis, such as software developers, academics and doctors, can take their skills abroad; many already do. “Countries fail,” warns Ben-David. “Greece is on the brink. Argentina has made a habit of it.”


If the haredi “utopia” brings hunger for its members and bankruptcy for those who unwillingly bankroll it, how did it come into existence? Most Israelis would answer that the haredi community is what’s left of traditional eastern European Jewish society from before modernity intruded. That’s a fallacy. Ultra-Orthodoxy is a modern creation, and the Israeli haredi lifestyle, with its lifetime students, is an innovation formed in the Jewish state, largely a result of the short-sighted decisions of secular politicians.

Ultra-Orthodoxy was born in social changes that shook European Jewry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The shifts included access to secular education and the half-fulfilled promise of Jews being accepted into non-Jewish society. Beforehand, Jewish religious tradition was simply how Jews lived. Modernity turned religion into a question, something that could either be dropped or reshaped for new circumstances.

New ideologies, including Zionism, defined the Jews as an ethnic group. Orthodoxy was the approach of people who chose to hold on to traditional practice and belief, in a manner “more self-conscious and less self-confident” than before, as the preeminent Jewish historian Jacob Katz wrote. To refrain from working on the Sabbath, to pray thrice daily in Hebrew, and to keep the dietary laws was now an ideology.

Or rather, several ideologies: one version, known as modern Orthodoxy, promoted keeping religious law while integrating into non-Jewish society. A variation, religious Zionism, affirmed both Orthodox practice and nationalism. Ultra-Orthodoxy took a different direction, best defined in the postulate of Moshe Sofer, the nineteenth-century rabbi: “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah.” Ironically, this refusal to absorb new ideas was itself an innovation in Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox rejected secular education and secular ideologies, including Zionism, and stressed the authority of rabbis in everyday life. The strategy did not prevent young people from abandoning religion. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis discouraged their remaining followers from leaving eastern Europe for Palestine or the dangerously open societies of the west—with catastrophic results in the Holocaust.

When Israel became independent, its haredi minority was a shattered remnant. Secular Zionists convincingly claimed that their strategy for Jewish survival had won. According to Menachem Friedman, the Israeli sociologist, many haredim expected their community to wither away “within the foreseeable future.”

Friedman’s description of Israel at its founding includes another dimension, stunning in its contrast to today: in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox had the same employment rate as other Israeli Jews. On average, they had the same number of children and married at the same age.

The haredi renaissance, as Friedman has shown, began with apparently inconsequential government moves. During Israel’s 1948 war of independence, 400 Jerusalem yeshivah students were exempted from mobilisation. The Israeli army held the western part of Jerusalem, but the UN partition of Palestine hadn’t assigned the city to the Jewish state. Jerusalem was home to haredi factions with particularly extreme anti-Zionist views. Military authorities chose to avoid a public confrontation with Jewish opponents, fearing that the spectacle could weaken its international position. After the war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) continued to grant a few hundred deferments to haredi men who remained full-time students. Gradually, the quota crept upward.

Another policy unintentionally made adult yeshivah study financially feasible. Before statehood, most Jews in Palestine sent their children to school systems linked to Zionist political movements. In 1949 the Knesset approved free elementary school education. The law funded existing schools and a new haredi school system. The addition was barely mentioned in parliament. After all, the haredim were fading away.

But state funds made it possible to open new ultra-Orthodox schools. Women could finish teacher training by the time they turned 20. The leading haredi rabbi in Israel, Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz, promoted a revolution in the name of conservatism. Ultra-Orthodox men and women would marry young. Women would get teaching jobs and support husbands who continued studying Talmud in a kollel, an academy for married men. Working parents helped out. Jews in western countries, moved by nostalgia for the murdered Jewish communities of Europe, donated funds that provided small salaries for students. The draft deferment sealed the deal: study was the way to avoid spending the formative years of early adulthood as a minority among secular soldiers.

So more than ever before, Israel’s haredim realised the ideal of living apart from modernity. They created a monastic community without celibacy, a pietist society without laypeople. Between 1952 and 1981, the average marriage age for Israeli haredi men dropped from 27.5 to 21.5. On average, women married by their 20th birthday and quickly began having children. Men continued to study for a decade or more after marrying. When they left kollel, they looked for Torah positions such as teaching or working in the state rabbinate. The exodus of the young generation ceased; the cultural gap between the haredi community and Israeli society was too wide to leap. Instead, young people looked down on their parents as insufficiently pious and aimed at being more punctilious in observing Jewish law.

Economically, the new “utopia” was not built to last. The second generation of Israeli yeshivah students had many siblings, and did not have working parents to help them. The supply of Torah jobs for men did not expand with the community.

On the brink of breakdown, Israel’s 1977 elections provided salvation. For the first time, a leader of the political right, Menachem Begin, of the Likud party, won a plurality. To build a coalition in the 120-member parliament he needed the ultra-Orthodox party, Agudat Yisrael. Begin’s coalition agreements in 1977 and 1981 were lists of concessions to the haredim, and were only the start. Yeshivot and ultra-Orthodox schools received more government money. The army stopped setting a quota on yeshivah draft deferments. The number climbed from 8000 in 1977 to 40,000 in 2005, and has kept rising.

More help came from the social welfare system. Rather than give parents tax deductions, Israel pays a stipend for each child, so families too poor to pay taxes also benefit. In the mid-1980s, the government adjusted the stipends so that the amounts climbed sharply from the third child on—a windfall for haredim.

Begin’s coalitions set a pattern. The ultra-Orthodox vote eventually fragmented between more than one party. But their combined strength grew, and they consistently preferred Likud-led governments. On an emotional and ideological level, the ultra-Orthodox saw the right as having a warmer attitude toward religious tradition than the left did. On a practical level, the Likud was willing to meet haredi demands. Besides the domestic impact, the alliance tilted Israeli politics toward permanent rule of the West Bank and away from peace negotiations.

In the 1990s, the state began building exclusively ultra-Orthodox settlements as part of the wider effort to encourage Israelis to settle in the West Bank. The move not only provided subsidised housing to desperate families but also locked ultra-Orthodox parties into support of settlements in occupied territory. The separatist community survived another generation.

Now, though, the cost has become unbearable. Rather than living apart, the ultra-Orthodox need to join Israeli society. But there’s no easy way to do that. Take conscription, the issue that shook Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition this summer. For years, the government has tried to attract haredim to serve in the army and continue into the job market. In 1999, the IDF created an infantry battalion for haredim, overseen by ultra-Orthodox rabbis. No women serve on their base. A newer programme for haredi men allows them to enlist at 22—usually after they’ve started families—to be trained as technicians. Even with preferential conditions, the two tracks draw less than a sixth of potential haredi draftees.

In February, Israel’s supreme court brought the issue to a head. It ruled that the law allowing yeshivah deferments discriminates against other conscripts, and gave parliament a deadline to pass a more equitable law. In May, the centrist Kadima party joined Netanyahu’s coalition, apparently providing the parliamentary base for reform: the government’s majority no longer depended on 15 ultra-Orthodox MPs who oppose ending the deferment. A Kadima backbencher, Yohanan Plesner, produced a proposal that included new tracks for haredi service, a strict ceiling on deferments past age 22, and financial penalties for those who evade service. Netanyahu rejected the plan, offering only softer reform. After only 70 days in the government, Kadima bolted.

At first glance, all this seems like negotiations between the Red Queen and the White Queen in Looking-Glass Land. Why not just allow the deferment to lapse, draft haredi 18-year-olds, and arrest anyone refusing to show up? Yet the separate society has grown too strong for that. As the summer’s coalition crisis shows, Netanyahu still treats the ultra-Orthodox parties as partners whom he can’t afford to divorce. Even avid proponents of equal conscription fear that applying the same rules to haredim as to other Israelis could provoke mass refusal and grant martyr status to jailed haredi men. Plesner’s recommendations are a compromise meant to make serving more palatable.

“There’s an inherent contradiction,” as one of the young haredi men told me in the café, using an ancient Aramaic logic term from the Talmud. “Drafting everyone isn’t realistic. But any compromise means that the [military] burden isn’t shared equally.” He was right. If adopted, Plesner’s proposals would provoke legal and political challenges to new forms of preferential treatment. What’s more, creating separate units that follow haredi religious rules undermines fundamental principles of the Israeli military. One of those, set down by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, is that military units can’t be linked to ideological camps, for fear that soldiers might not obey orders of the elected government. Letting clerics oversee haredi units adds to that risk.

Ultra-Orthodox insistence on strict separation of the sexes also runs counter to the IDF’s effort to promote equal opportunities for women. If a woman cannot command a technical unit because its soldiers are ultra-Orthodox, that’s one less position available to female officers. Before Plesner published his proposals, a dozen female ex-brigadiers and colonels signed a letter to him and Netanyahu demanding that equal service for haredim not be achieved by “sacrificing the rights of women soldiers.”

The gender problem points to a deeper dilemma. For mainstream Israel, the IDF is the “people’s army”—in the sense that everyone should share the burdens and dangers, but also that military service forges a common Israeli identity. The demand that haredim serve is also a demand that they join the mainstream. But the army—a day-and-night, regimented institution—is a poor vehicle for peaceful integration. Either the army has to impose the ethos of the majority or allow the minority to impose its rules. Despite the emotions aroused by draft evasion, it makes much more sense to begin integration gradually in the work world.

That reform, one might think, would have Netanyahu’s full support. A hard-line neoliberal, Netanyahu served as finance minister under Ariel Sharon between 2003 and 2005. He reduced taxes on the wealthy and slashed aid to the poor, including child stipends for large families. Critics of the government’s support of the ultra-Orthodox argue that those measures had a delayed effect of pushing haredim to get jobs, as shown by an uptick in employment since 2007.

In fact, Netanyahu’s method was akin to using a screwdriver to remove a splinter. More haredim did begin to articulate a sense of crisis. Vocational training and special college programmes for haredim, with gender-separated classes and remedial courses to make up for years of missing education, gradually grew. “In the long run, when we look back, we’ll see that 2003 was the turning point,” says Rabbi Beazley Cohen, a former kollel student in his thirties who has become an advocate of haredim going to work.

That doesn’t mean Cohen is endorsing Netanyahu’s policies; he’s simply describing their impact. It’s essential to look at the economic figures closely. The loss of benefits hit large numbers of people; only a fraction responded by going to work. The rise in jobs is greater among ultra-Orthodox women than men. Among men, the increase in employment is mainly among those under 35. Though more haredim are working, the number below the poverty line hasn’t dropped, according to the National Insurance Institute. That suggests that the newly employed are mostly in low-paying or part-time jobs.

For haredi men, the obstacles to going to work can be immense, Cohen says. The secular world is a foreign country, and the work environment is terra incognita. Kollel students are not used to having to keep a strict schedule or follow a boss’s instructions. In their own community, Talmud scholars are highly respected for “their knowledge and analytic ability,” Cohen notes. “The need to start all over with a simple job and low pay is very hard for the outstanding yeshivah student, and prevents many from taking steps toward gainful employment.”

Those hit hardest by the economic crisis are parents over 40 with many children. But leaving the kollel for job training can cost a man his small scholarship; an entry-level unskilled job might not be much better. And the older someone is, the harder it is to train for a job and find one. I asked Cohen if there is a lost generation of haredi men who have no chance of employment. “I don’t want to reach that conclusion,” he said, “but sometimes I feel it’s true.”

For the younger generation, the colleges for haredim offer a bridge to a profession. The very existence of academic programmes aimed at the ultra-Orthodox is a breakthrough—a small one. A high-end estimate is that 6000 haredi men and women—mostly women—are now enrolled. Drop-out rates for the men are high, according to a recent report by the ministry of industry and trade. Beginning college in one’s twenties, without having studied maths or English in one’s teens, is a high bar to leap.

Cohen notes one more flaw in the idea that cutting government support will increase haredi job rates. The most significant form, he says, is funding for schools and yeshivot, which pays teachers’ salaries. Reduce that, and even more will be unemployed.

On the macro level, the economic relation between the Israeli mainstream and ultra-Orthodox society is an impending disaster. The majority is justifiably outraged at paying for the minority’s choice of lifestyle. But on the individual level, an ultra-Orthodox couple in their thirties with six children have very limited choices. Neoliberalism is even less effective at dealing with their dilemma than it is at coping with other forms of poverty.

A way out of this crisis will require a significant cultural concessions by both the minority and the majority—and it will demand government spending rather than cuts.

The concession by the majority is to reconsider the emotional commitment to the “people’s army.” Israel’s population has grown even as the army has become more technologically advanced. The issue of whether the universal draft is still necessary has been at the edge of national consciousness for nearly two decades, and politicians have evaded it. By beginning a shift to a volunteer army, with financial benefits for those who serve, the government could remove one of the many obstacles to haredi men going to work.

To remove the others, it will have to invest more in job training, including remedial education and help in learning the culture of the world of work. The state will also need to pay stipends for those in the training process so they can support their families. Indeed, the stipends should be greater than the benefits those men now receive as kollel students, as an incentive for making the transition. In the short term this, too, is preferential treatment, but it is an investment in creating a culture of work.

Moving older kollel students into jobs may be impossible. The government has helped make them unemployable and has a responsibility to keep supporting them and their dependents. But it needs to make clear that the benefits are being phased out; men now in their twenties can’t expect lifetime study with state help. Likewise, it needs to phase out paying yeshivah teachers, but slowly: those with jobs will continue to draw state-funded salaries, but the haredi community must pay for new teachers. In the long term, religious education should not be the state’s business.

On the other hand, general education certainly is. Parents have the right to raise their children according to their faith, but that right must be balanced against children’s rights to be able to support themselves and understand the world around them. Ultra-Orthodox schools must teach mathematics, English, science, history, civics and other basics of a modern education. Implementing that change will provoke fury among ultra-Orthodox leaders, even if some parents may be quietly satisfied.

The problem is that Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians do not appear to have the courage to make that essential reform. Yet delaying it only makes it more difficult. As Ben-David, the economist, points out, today’s haredi children will be tomorrow’s voters. At a certain point, there may not be a majority to vote for reform. The alternative to collapse is for Israel’s leaders to state clearly what the smartest and most honest young ultra-Orthodox already know: manna cannot fall forever.