The new Israeli government is being sworn in without representatives of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties. This is not common, but our experience in Jerusalem teaches us that this might actually be good news for the ultra-Orthodox community. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds.
Residents of Jerusalem are constantly struggling over the character of their neighborhoods; is their neighborhood pluralistic, or ultra-Orthodox?
Take Ramot, for example. When I began serving as a councilwoman, the ultra-Orthodox councilmen demanded that the mayor zone Ramot as an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood; this would have had significant ramifications. Needless to say, the secular, traditional, and religious community in Ramot opposed such a move. Together, we embarked on a mission to counter this initiative. We were quite surprised when even the ultra-Orthodox joined our ranks. They explained that they’d left the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods because they didn’t want to live in a ghetto, and they don’t want the ultra-Orthodox ghetto encroaching on them in Ramot. They want to live in mixed neighborhoods, with secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox neighbors. This was their wish.
More examples followed: not only in the struggle over neighborhoods, but also when combating the exclusion of women from the public sphere. In the early days of the struggle against this ugly phenomenon, I was asked why I wasn’t “minding my own business” and insisted on getting involved with the ultra-Orthodox. Couldn’t I just let them live as they wish? But I was shocked to realize that while the ultra-Orthodox representatives favored excluding women, and even claimed that sitting in the back of the bus and using separate streets was convenient (and not humiliating) for the women, ordinary ultra-Orthodox citizens thought otherwise.
Many ultra-Orthodox women called me to voice their support, and ultra-Orthodox men thanked me for my efforts. I was further motivated by a phone call from an ultra-Orthodox woman who said that she “sometimes thinks that G-d created non-ultra-Orthodox women to save the ultra-Orthodox women from the community’s own rabbis and cronies.
The new government can save the ultra-Orthodox men and women from their rabbis and, more importantly, their cronies. Think about it. Ultra-Orthodox society is not democratic. The public cannot speak its mind. Everything is managed and run by a small, tight-knit clique.
In Jerusalem, we live alongside, and are familiar with, the ultra-Orthodox community. Time and time again, and struggle after struggle, we realize that the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members, councilmen, and cronies do not represent the ultra-Orthodox public.
But it’s more than just Jerusalem. The ultra-Orthodox website, Kikar HaShabat, conducted a large survey that showed that half of the ultra-Orthodox public supports army enlistment for anyone not studying in a yeshiva. The same survey reported that a third of the ultra-Orthodox public feels unrepresented by the ultra-Orthodox parties and does not want to vote for them. A quarter of the respondents reported wishing that the ultra-Orthodox parties would prioritize helping their constituents enter the workforce.
As the new government takes the oath of office, leaving the ultra-Orthodox parties far from the nexus of decision making, we have a real chance. Now is the time for the government to speak directly to the ultra-Orthodox public – circumventing their leaders. This is the only way to give the ultra-Orthodox community a future.
You’d be surprised, but ultra-Orthodox men and women want to live a normal, good life, just like everyone else. They want to shoulder their portion of the national burden, work, make a living, and raise their families. Today, more than ever, we have a real chance at making this happen.