At the aftermath of the Israeli elections, I see in my social feed many posts about the fear that some secular Israelis sense towards the political power of Haredi Jews (the Ultra-Orthodox). “The Haredim are taking over!” someone wrote in a post filled with anxiety and tension. Someone else asked, “What kind of future I have here in Israel when these people are just getting more and more powerful?” Indeed the two main Haredi political parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) received a significant number of mandates, 8 and 8, a total of 16. 507 thousand Israelis voted for them and made them the two main significant political partners of Benjamin Netanyahu as he works to assemble his fifth government (and is about to take David Ben Gurion’s place as the Prime Minister that served for the longest time in the history of Israel).
As someone who cares deeply for the unity of the people living in this country and thinks that the future of Israel is tied to our ability and will as citizens to work with one another, I feel obligated to shed some optimistic light on this so-called “dark” situation (literally, the summer is coming, but their clothing will stay as it was in East Europe in the 18th century).
First of all, if we dive into the matter of mandates the Haredi received in this election system, and we compare it to past years, we notice that there is not a major change in the “mandates political map.” How many mandates did they obtain in past elections? 16 in 2003, 18 in 2006, 16 in 2009, 18 in 2013 and 13 in 2015 (an average of 16.2). In my opinion, the fluctuations of mandates show us that at least 15-20% of people who vote for Shas and United Torah Judaism (but mostly for Shas) are also affected by non-Haredi political voices, mostly that of Bibi, who can choose to sometimes use rhetoric techniques to lore Shas voters to vote for the Likud party.
Second, let us talk about Haredi demography. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics the Haredi population of Israel, today is about 12% of the total population. Different assessments that I allow myself to blend together talk about how in the year 2030 the Haredi will grow to 16% of the population and by 2065 they will grow to 33%. This means, statistically talking, that when my grandchildren grow here in Israel, every third Israeli will be a Haredi Jew. I’m not writing this to disturb the peaceful routine of the coffee drinkers in Dizengoff Square but to make sure people out there understand that all Israelis must ask themselves some critical questions – How much do I know about the Haredim in Israel? What are their customs and beliefs? What is their ideology? And what is this word anyway, Haredim? There isn’t such a thing when you really stop to think about it. The word itself derives from the Book of Isaiah (66:5), and it means “[one who] trembles at the word of G-d.” However, it does not truly represent the Ultra-Orthodox public in Israel since we are talking about different major groups who conduct a separate lifestyle as independent communities. There are Sephardic Haredim (Aryeh Deri), Lithuanian Jews (Yaakov Litzman), Hasidic Jews (Yisrael Eichler), Modern Ultra-Orthodox (mostly American Jews) and more.
Third, one cannot nor should ignore the inevitable effects of modernization on the life of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. These effects, in my opinion, could be the building blocks of future bridges that could be built between Haredim and non-Haredim. Luckily for you, your faithful servant here has gathered some interesting data on the “modernization of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.” I pulled out data from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, the Israel Democracy Institute and the Taub Center. Let us dive in.
“The number of young Israeli Haredim who chose to go to non-religious colleges has increased tenfold in the last decade, from just 1,000 a year to 10,800” (Note that this trend is slightly slowing down and that the government’s efforts in this field have been less successful than in the past).
“When looking on the Haredi women, we can see that 15% of them chose to study in a non-religious college and obtain a modern profession”.
“Based on different assessments we see that about 15% of the Haredim in Israel, above the age of 18, chose to leave their Haredi communities and immigrate to a less orthodox (but still frum) communities”.
“About 30-33% of the Haredim in Israel are Modern Ultra-Orthodox, a unique group that on average have 4-6 children. Their financial status is more than good, and often about half of their children chose to leave the Yeshiva and acquire professional education with high-paying salaries. Many of these Haredim are Anglo Saxon, and they are highly educated” (Dr. Neri Horowitz).
“Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel have fewer children. In 2003 the average number of children for an ultra-Orthodox woman was 7.5, and in the last couple of years it is at 6.9”. I would add that as we see in many communities around the world, when the level of education rises, the number of children per family drops.
“The number of Haredi teens who chose to take the public Israeli matriculation exams (high school finals) grew from 23% at 2005 to 33% in 2015. One of the reasons for that would be the fact that within a decade the number of female Haredi high school students taking the exams grew from 31% to 51% while the male students show less motivation, dropping from 16% at 2009 to 13% at 2015”. I would add two things about it. One, we should also look at how many of them passed the exam, a data I do not have in front of me now. Second, it is clear to me that the typical Haredi young woman views herself as the future source of income for her Torah loving husband. Many of these teens say that what they really want from their future husband is that he will be a devoted Yeshiva student and for her future family to survive, she understands the importance of making a decent pay in a high-paying job.
“Since 2002 the number of working Haredi men (not studying in a Yeshiva all day long) grew from 35% to 52%. Among the women, the number grew from 52% to 73%”. I would add that we ought to notice that this trend is slowing down in recent years. Moreover, the labor productivity rank of this working population is low. For instance, the amount of weekly work hours among Israeli women is 36 hours a week, but among Haredi women, it is 29 hours, so they work fewer hours hence making less money and in low paying jobs. One more thing I would add is that often Haredi labor (more among men than women) leads to a nontaxable income (what Israelis often call “Black Labor” ‘Avodah BeShachor’) which is good for them, not so could for the country as a whole.
“There is a clear rise in internet usage among Haredim, from 28% in 2009 to 43% in 2016. Haredi women tend to use the internet more than the men with about 47% of them make use of it weekly”.
Time to conclude. Is it a public that we cannot communicate with? Does non-Haredi Jews in Israel are doomed to forever be frightened from the Ultra-Orthodox? Does the rise of this public in Israel is the end of democracy and liberty in our cities? I chose to answer ‘No’ to these questions. Let us put aside the remarks and political statements of some Ultra-Orthodox party leaders who say what they say to get reelected and focus on building personal relationships between Haredi and non-Haredi Jews who chose to live here and build here their future. Fast forward again to the year 2065, I’m still going to be here, I hope that my kids and grandchildren will be here as well. Israel will have much more Haredi Jews than it is now – and I intend to reach out my hand to them hoping they will do the same. Happy Passover to us all.
For a deeper understanding of Haredi Jews in Israel check out this report by the Israel Democracy Institute (Hebrew).