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Getting real about solving the Haredi challenge

Addressing one part of the problem may worsen another, so Israel's majority should plan wisely and expect compromises

The question of the future of Haredi society and, even more, the question of the integration of Haredim into general Israeli society occupies Israel’s political leadership and has been at the center of the political agenda for many months. A variety of circumstances – economic (the budgetary load), legal (the court nullification of the Tal Law regarding army service), and social (the social protest) – have increased the likelihood that this issue will not soon be removed from the agenda.

In light of the Haredim’s demographic growth, the time is approaching when general Israeli society must decide on a new model for the relationship between the non-Haredi majority and the growing Haredi minority. Non-Haredi society perceives the Haredi challenges as consisting of their community’s low contribution to the economy, the absence of “Equal Burden-Sharing” (army service), and religious coercion on various matters.

From the Haredi point of view, the tension between general society and the Haredi world does not seem unbridgeable. As the Haredim see it, the essence of the general society’s criticism is not about Haredi society’s values, but rather about its low contribution to the economy and the country’s security and to its desire to impose certain patterns of behavior on the general public. At the same time, as the Haredim see it, the general public also needs to understand that the world of the yeshivot contributes to strengthening the identity, vitality, cultural richness and uniqueness of the renascent Jewish state. It has turned modern Israel into a Torah learning power.

Even so, the demands made by the general society shake the foundations of the Haredi world, first by creating an Economic Dilemma. With the decline of financial support of their parents, of reparations from Germany and welfare allowances from the state, young Haredim are becoming the world’s poorest Jewish population. In Israel, one in every three Jewish children enrolled in first grade studies in one of the Haredi school systems, and most of them live below the poverty line.

Haredi society finds itself between a rock and a hard place, between occupational integration in the general community that would endanger its cultural uniqueness, and the poverty that would endanger its continued existence. If the Israeli establishment and the Haredi leadership do not find solutions that answer the need to combine economic well-being with the preservation of the Haredim’s unique social fabric, Haredi society is liable to collapse, economically or socially. The question for Haredim is not “whether” it is possible for them to integrate occupationally and economically, since over the long term there is no alternative, but how to accomplish this without losing the cultural uniqueness and the adherence to the goals that characterize the Torah world.

Another source of great concern for the Haredi world is the notion of undermining a Proven Model. In the past 60 years, Haredi society has created a kind of cultural and social enclave that has enabled it to deal with the political reality within which they function as a minority of “Diaspora Jews” within a Jewish state. With great effort, they arrived at a model that has proven its efficiency. Under its cover, the Haredi community has grown from numbering 50,000 in 1948 to 850,000 today. The model is built on the foundation of a five-word formula: Social segregation and cultural fortification. The Haredim believe that this formula also ensured the survival of the Jewish people during 2,000 years of exile. In any case, the Haredi leadership has difficulty in relinquishing this successful model, despite the growing understanding by many among them of the increasing need for economic integration in the general community.

Finally, a cardinal red flag, perhaps the most intractable, is the challenge that change poses to the supremacy of Torah study: The Hafetz Haim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan Hacohen of Radin (1933-1838), one of the greatest Torah scholars of the pre-Shoah generation, declared that “the tenth should be holy!”, meaning that he foresaw that in the long run, only one of every ten boys who learn Torah would be suited to dedicating his entire life solely to Torah study. In any case, it is likely that after negotiations, the Haredi world will come to terms with a compromise under which a full exemption from civilian/military service would be limited to only a tenth of the 8,000 young men in each age cohort. And yet the Haredim have great difficulty relinquishing a way of life based on the core value of the absolute supremacy of Torah study for all those who wish it, and settling instead for allocating scholarships whose numbers will be determined by budgetary constraints.

The Difficulty in Finding a Comprehensive Solution

While the political discourse has a tendency to bundle all the above problems together in a single package – and indeed, they do sometimes have reciprocal relationships – a cool and calculated analysis shows that solving one of the problems is liable to sabotage the solving of one of the others. In other words, a solution requires not only finding the right formula for dealing with each of these challenges but also for setting priorities: what is more important to solve and what can be put off or even left alone?

Following are examples of how various solutions to the Haredi challenge interfere with one another and complicate the presentation of a comprehensive solution.

The demand for drafting the Haredim and for equal burden-sharing will unite the Haredi community in active resistance – perhaps even including breaking the law – that will undermine efforts to bring about their voluntary integration into the workforce. The military draft is without doubt the most difficult issue for the Haredi community, and insistence on full, or even partial draft equality (which would mean repealing the recognition that those who learn Torah are of equal – or even greater – importance to those in uniform) appears to be something the Haredim would refuse to accept.

Of course, Israeli society could impose harsh penalties on the Haredi sector in the event that it refuses to accept new draft rules (forcibly drafting Haredim directly would be much more complicated that imposing punishments on those who refuse to be drafted). However, this would not necessarily achieve any objective other than a certain reduction in the economic cost of supporting the Haredi community.

On the other hand, there are indications that the Haredi leadership is prepared to move cautiously and gradually towards occupational integration, a move that an immediate focus on the draft question would likely reverse. In other words, if the top priority is the productive integration of the Haredim into the workforce, it is possible that revoking the duty to enlist would make it much easier to achieve this goal than would requiring enlistment.

The demand for equal burden-sharing, assuming it would result in the drafting of a significantly greater number of Haredim, would per force cause friction between the Haredi draftees and the army, and would accentuate the Haredim’s demand for accommodation of their sectoral characteristics, as well as the challenge of Haredi coercion. It is important to recall that, even today, there are increasing numbers of cases in which a clash is evident between religious/halachic demands and the accepted standards in the military that results from the rise in the proportion of religious-Zionist soldiers in the army. (The most prominent of the recent cases concerned refusing orders during evacuation of settlement outposts, women’s singing, the phrasing of the soldiers’ swearing in, and the involvement of military chaplains in preparing soldiers for battle). Adding tens of thousands of Haredim to the army would necessarily lead to a significant intensification of these clashes.

The aim of reducing coercion by Haredim is also not necessarily consistent with the other two demands. As we have mentioned, integrating Haredim into military service would add new points of conflict and coercion. But more than that: a Haredi community that enjoys not only numerical growth but also economic independence would probably only increase its demands and be less willing for compromise with the rest of the society on which it is currently dependent for its livelihood. Does Israel really want to bring the Haredim to economic independence? Wouldn’t economic independence strengthen the Haredim’s bargaining power and their appetite for imposing new arrangements in various areas?

In the current situation of almost total economic dependence on state funds, the power of the Haredim is indeed felt, but it is limited. A one-sided decision by the Israeli government to cut off funding for the Haredi day-schools and Yeshivot would weaken them greatly, even to the point of collapse. The Haredi leaders are well aware of this, and they are therefore careful not to make far-reaching demands. Economic independence would also give them much greater room to maneuver without being influenced by the constant need for government funds.

In other words, the Haredi challenge is complex and dealing with it requires setting preferences and priorities that will dictate recommended approaches. In any case, we cannot assume that dealing with the problem requires flexibility (or “submission”) only from the Haredim, and it is important to understand that the non-Haredi community, in overcoming one of the challenges, will likely pay a price that it had not necessarily anticipated in relation to the others.

Dr Dov Maimon
Dr Dov Maimon

This article was co-written with Dr. Dov Maimon. Dr. Maimon was born in Paris and earned a B.Sc. from the Technion (Haifa, Israel), a MBA from Insead (Fontainebleau, France ), a M.A in Religious Anthropology and a Ph.D. in Islamic and Medieval Studies from the Sorbonne University. His was laureate of the prestigious prize “Grand Prix du chancelier des universites 2005” awarded to the best French PhD work in Literature and Human Sciences. Dov worked successively as computer department manager of the Israel National Water Master Plan at Tahal, as managing director of UK and the Canadian subsidiaries of the French conglomerate Compagnie Générale des Eaux and as director of the Jewish-Muslim department at Yesodot, the Center for the Study of Torah and Democracy. He teaches at the Federman School of Public Policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Tel Aviv University. At the JPPPI, he is working on the “Grand Strategy of the Jewish People toward Islam” project and leads the Institute activities in Europe.

The article was adapted from a paper published by The Jewish People Policy Institute The Basic Question about ‘the Haredi Challenge’: What outcome does the rest of Israeli society want? The authors, Dr. Dov Maimon and Shmuel Rosner are fellows at JPPI. The full paper can be read here.

About the Author
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv based columnist, editor and think tank fellow. He is a fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and the non-fiction Editor for Israel’s largest Publishing House, Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir. Shmuel is Senior Political Editor for the Jewish Journal, and writes the popular blog Rosner's Domain as well as a weekly column for The International Herald Tribune/New York Times and for Israel’s Maariv Daily. Rosner was previously a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and was Chief U.S. Correspondent, Head of the News Division and Head of the Features Division for the Israeli daily Haaretz. He wrote for many magazines, including Slate, Foreign Policy, Commentary, The New Republic, The Jewish Review of Books, and others. Rosner’s book “Shtetl Bagel Baseball, on the Wonderful Dreadful State of American Jews” was published in Israel by Keter (Hebrew, 2011) and became a bestseller.