Alexander Shapiro
Humanitarian Professional Living in Lod

Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jews: 5 Lessons From an Expert

I moderated a discussion with Dr. Gilad Malach, an expert on Israel’s Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish, population, and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. Dr. Malach particularly focuses on Israeli government policy relating to Haredi employment and military conscription.

Dr. Malach and I spoke after a screening of the film “The Other Story” at the Lod Social Film Festival. The festival brings movies with social narratives to Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish and largely working class city. The festival also includes a filmmaking competition for youth from Lod, and workshops for social activists.

Credit: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOTJhIviQyi-1ZNqBLXd7Tg

The Other Story, by director Avi Nesher, is about two young women who cross paths. One woman left behind a secular and hedonistic life for Jewish orthodoxy, and the other left Jewish orthodoxy to pursue “sexual and spiritual freedom.”

The movie touches on numerous issues in Israeli society that I brought up with Dr. Malach, including: (1) Haredi birth rates; (2) religious demographic shifts; (3) Israeli secular society’s perceptions of the Haredim; (4) Haredi employment; and (5) Haredi women’s empowerment.

Who are the “Haredim”?

The Haredim are an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that live in largely insular communities and seek to guard traditional Jewish life from modern influences. Haredim are sometimes referred to as “black-hats,” owing to their recognizable clothing and hats. There are hundreds of distinct communities within the broader Haredi population, each of which with their own traditions and histories.

Credit: http://www.terrasanta.net/tsx/assets/foto/l_haredim150713EN.jpg

Here are five things I learned from my discussion with Dr. Malach.

  1. Haredi power is growing, especially due to high birth rates

The Haredim have great power in Israeli government and society due to their control over religious institutions, their role in the coalition-building needed for the government to function, and their community’s voting power.

Credit: https://www.stratfor.com/sites/default/files/styles/wv_medium/public/israel-knesset-seats-alignment-041918.png?itok=AqGhxEjb

Haredi political power has been increasing over time, and will likely only increase as the Haredi population grows rapidly. The Haredi birth rate is about seven children per family, causing Israel to have the highest birthrate in the West. The Haredi population “reached one million in 2017, representing 12 percent” of Israel’s total population – and Haredim are expected to make up a third of all of Israel’s citizens by 2065.

Credit: https://www.stratfor.com/sites/default/files/styles/wv_medium/public/israel-fertility-rate-041918%20%281%29.png?itok=LqktVow7
  1. Israel’s traditional Jewish religious center is shrinking

The Haredim are growing due both to their high birth rates and to some Jewish Israelis becoming more observant. At the same time, there are also a growing number of Jewish Israelis that identify as secular.

These dual shifts towards more observance and greater secularization draw Jewish Israelis away from the traditional religious center. There is little movement between the most and least observant groups – very secular people don’t tend to become very observant (and vice versa). Most shifts come from people who were somewhat observant (the “traditional religious center”), and become more or less so.

  1. Secular and Haredi Jews view each other with suspicion… and fascination

There is suspicion, conflict, and a lack of understanding between Israel’s Haredi and secular communities. 73% of Jewish Israelis think the most acute tensions in Jewish Israeli society are between Haredi and secular communities.

Credit: http://rrfei.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/a1.jpg

The Haredim have often come in conflict with Israeli government and society. Some Israelis resent that Haredim don’t have to serve in the military while the general populace does (a new law may be passed soon to address this issue). In addition to not serving in the military, many Haredi men only study and don’t work. 45% of Haredim live under the poverty line and the community requires massive social welfare.  Poverty among the Haredim is exacerbated by their large average family size and high birthrates.

Credit: https://www.stratfor.com/sites/default/files/styles/wv_medium/public/israel-employment-levels-041918.png?itok=UJilDrCh

Many Israelis want the country to function normally on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest – they want public transportation, stores, and roads to be open. Some Haredim resent this, even to the point of throwing stones at buses driving on Shabbat and mobbing open businesses. Stone throwing and spitting is also used by some Haredim to protest the presence of secular people, especially women, in religious communities.

While there is conflict between Haredi and secular communities, there is also growing fascination. There is currently a “plethora of television shows featuring ultra-Orthodox characters” in Israel.

TV’s ‘Kipat Barzel’ spotlights ultra-Orthodox in the army (Credit: Times of Israel / ‘Kipat Barzel’)
  1. Be optimistic – Haredi men are working and serving more

While the previous section painted a doomy view of Israel’s Haredim, Dr. Malach was actually very optimistic that things are improving, and will continue to do so. He wrote that among the Haredim today there are “higher employment rates, more students in higher education, and a rise in the number of men serving in the military.” There is also “a record low in the poverty rate for the Haredi sector.”

Dr. Malach was confident that the Haredim can continue to be integrated into the Israeli economy and society by giving them autonomy within these systems, while also exposing them to the benefits of greater integration. Dr. Malach calls this strategy “integrated autonomy.”

  1. Haredi women carry economic power, but traditional gender roles remain

Dr. Malach said that most Haredi homes still have traditional gender roles – the women take care of the kids, clean, cook, etc. But Dr. Malach also noted that many Haredi women are the breadwinners in their homes because their husbands only study. The employment rate among Haredi women is almost identical to that of secular women.

I enjoyed my conversation with Dr. Malach, and appreciated his optimistic outlook. I am excited to continue following his work on this crucial issue for the Israeli state.

About the Author
Alexander "Jake" Shapiro is a recent university graduate living and working in the Israeli city of Lod. Jake studied international relations and political science at the University of Maryland - College Park. Jake has experience designing and implementing international development and peacebuilding projects around the world, formerly serving with IsraAID in Nepal, and the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in D.C.
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