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New bricks in the ultra-Orthodox ghetto wall

Coalition deals giving near unlimited power to the Haredi sector pose an existential challenge for Israel
Ultra-Orthodox Jews watch as their rabbi votes in Bnei Brak, Nov. 1, 2022 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews watch as their rabbi votes in Bnei Brak, Nov. 1, 2022 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Ultra-Orthodox autonomy is being established before our very eyes – both in practice and within the framework of Israeli law. True, the ultra-Orthodox have been living in a bubble behind walls for years. But the coalition agreements that have set the stage for Israel’s new government, together with planned reforms in the legal system buttress this autonomy. 

Practices like closing supermarkets to women during certain hours and enforcing gender segregation in particular public spaces have been given an official stamp of approval in contravention of settled Israeli law. Two separate states are being created inside Israel. In education, transportation, housing, and shouldering the security burden, the ultra-Orthodox are creating a parallel reality. This process hurts everyone, Haredim and non-Haredim alike, and endangers Israel’s resilience. If the state is split into “cantons,” it will no longer be able to exist.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community currently numbers 1.28 million and constitutes 13.3% of the total population. A quarter of students enrolled in the country’s Hebrew education system are ultra-Orthodox. Within four decades the Haredim will amount to a third of the population. 

The community’s most striking characteristic is its insularity. The Haredim live behind walls – 66% in Haredi cities or in cities where they constitute a large share of the population (Jerusalem) or an absolute majority (Bnei Brak). Though intangible, these walls are very real and close them off from the spheres inhabited by other Israelis. Now that their political power is almost unlimited, they are wielding it to make those walls even higher and, in essence, to establish a Haredi autonomy that exists unto itself – but at the expense of the Israeli majority.

Education in the ultra-Orthodox sector, especially for boys, is an island with almost no ties to the state except for the public funding it receives. The ultra-Orthodox curriculum is determined without the ability of the Education Ministry to intervene. Supervision of teaching and learning conditions is minimal to nonexistent, and participation in the state’s measurement and evaluation system is marginal. The recently-signed coalition agreements only intensify this trend. They stipulate increasing state funding for ultra-Orthodox education while exempting the system from the few obligations and ties to the state that had existed. Shas set a new sleight-of-hand record by turning its own school network into a virtual city in order to bypass local-authority supervision and licensing requirements. In effect, it has established a national bureaucratic autonomy in all its operations, with no need to be accountable to anyone. 

In the transportation sphere as well the ultra-Orthodox are deepening their separation from the rest of the country. Over the years, a public transportation system was established for the general public, and another for the Haredim. Largely subsidized by the state, the Haredim enjoy public transportation services between the major Haredi strongholds. These services are not technically off-limits to the general public, but they are routed in such a way that only the ultra-Orthodox actually use them. This has also opened the door to yet another form of injustice: gender segregation in public transit, which has become commonplace on Haredi bus lines – men in the front and women in the back.

Ultra-Orthodox self-segregation has also been amped up in the housing market. The coalition agreements provide for the establishment of yet another Haredi city, besides the five that already exist – this in addition to planning and construction benefits intended for the Haredim exclusively. The ultra-Orthodox do, of course, have a right to appropriate housing, but at a time when the housing market is unfavorable to all groups, special planning for the Haredim comes at the expense of the rest of the population.

And finally, under the aegis of the override clause, the ultra-Orthodox will be able to execute a number of legal maneuvers not subject to judicial review. Chief among these is the Haredi draft law, which is expected to provide the ultra-Orthodox with a blanket exemption from IDF service – a glaring moral and legal injustice. But there is also an array of other benefits the Haredim are seeking for themselves, such as representation on government directorates without the need for appropriate qualifications, recognition on public sector jobs of yeshiva study as equivalent to academic study, and myriad other special and dubious arrangements that create one set of rules for Haredim and another for the rest of Israelis.

Haredi integration in Israeli society and in the various spheres of Israeli life is an existential challenge for Israel. As a community that sprang up within ghettos, the Haredim now live in a separate world altogether. Instead of reversing this trend and promoting integration, the new government is working to fortify the Haredi ghetto. The outcome, which is already visible and which will only grow stronger, is the existence of an ultra-Orthodox autonomy that will live within but also alongside the State of Israel, and the relationship between it and the rest of the country will be based on give-and-take on the side of the state and those who support it with their taxes, and take-and-take on the ultra-Orthodox side.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center.
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