Commentary Magazine

The Ultra-Orthodox on the Warpath

The short walk from home to school had become a gauntlet of fear for eight-year-old Naama Margolese, a cherub-faced second-grader at a modern Orthodox elementary school located in Beit Shemesh, about 20 minutes west of Jerusalem. One December morning, she was spat upon and epithets such as shiksa and prutza (the Hebrew word for prostitute) were hurled at her by grown men belonging to a particularly fanatic stream of ultra-Orthodoxy.

The nation was shocked by images broadcast on primetime television, showing Naama sobbing as her mother attempted to convince her to go back to school. A Facebook campaign with about 10,000 followers rallied around the motto “protecting little Naama.” A demonstration attended by several thousands was held in her honor. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres weighed in. Coming as it did after a series of incidents involving gender and very religious Jews—several in which the segregation by sex on public buses was violently enforced by haredim and one in which a group of religious Zionist IDF soldiers walked out in protest during a ceremony when female soldiers began to sing—the Naama incident suggested that perhaps a fault line in Israeli society present from the nation’s founding had finally cracked open. 

The town of Beit Shemesh is an idiosyncratic place, one that has generated a disproportionate number of violent incidents involving haredim. Still, the treatment of Naama Margolese can serve as an instructive, albeit extreme, example of the sorts of demographic processes that have increased tensions between haredi and non-haredi populations in Israel. 

Once, not long ago, Beit Shemesh was a small, quiet development town, a community summoned into being by the government. In his 1993 nonfiction book In the Land of Israel, for instance, Amos Oz described the people he met in Beit Shemesh’s commercial center as members of the Sephardi masses that brought Menachem Begin’s Likud to power. 

But beginning in the late 1990s, the demography of the town began to change dramatically, when young couples belonging to some of the most religiously extreme groups faced a severe housing shortage in the overcrowded and expensive Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea She’arim, Beit Israel, and Ge’ula. 

These followers of the Satmar, Toldot Aharon, Breslav, Dushinsky, and Shomrei Hachomot sects—all of which believe the state of Israel is a blasphemy in itself because there should be no such state until the coming of the Messiah—have been among the most rabidly anti-Zionist forces in the world even before there was a state. But their unprecedented natural growth was supported by the economic expansion, generous  welfare benefits, and military forces of the  Zionist state they despise. And in the late 1990s, guided and financed by rabbis and community leaders, they organized themselves into groups and moved en masse to their own housing projects in Beit Shemesh.

The move to Beit Shemesh entailed frequent bus rides on public transportation to and from Jerusalem to work or to study Torah, to visit family and spiritual leaders. Haredim who had been accustomed to imposing on themselves an extremely cloistered way of life to fend off ever pervasive secular influences were forced for the first time to come into direct contact with a diverse mix of Israelis. At the doctor’s office, in the post office, or in the municipality, these haredim had to contend with the town’s veteran residents and members of a new modern Orthodox community—to which the Margolese family belongs—as well with as a more moderate haredi community, composed to a great extent of immigrants from the United States. 

All they wanted was to be left alone, but these zealots were confronted by alternative lifestyles that threatened their own worldview. In response, they set about putting in place in Beit Shemesh the sorts of social and cultural barriers they had become used to in their Jerusalem enclaves. Ignoring city ordinances, they posted signs denying “immodestly dressed” women entrance to their neighborhoods. When police came to tear down the signs, pale-complected, skinny young yeshiva men, exhibiting ferocity incongruent with their sedentary appearance, clashed with burly police officers. Bus lines that did not enforce sex segregation were stoned; separate sidewalks for men and women were established in the immediate vicinity of a Beit Shemesh synagogue; local grocery stores enforced separate hours for men and women. 

And a no-holds-barred battle was launched against the opening of the Orot Girls elementary school, the one to which Naama Margolese was walking when she was spat upon. The extremists, seemingly informed by a warped prurience, claimed that the girls, between the ages of 6 and 13, caused men who could see them playing during recess “to stumble.” The girls are obligated by school rules to wear skirts well below their knees and sleeves that completely cover their elbows. Still, the battle was not only about sexual temptation. It was also about the allocation of limited municipal resources. The zealots had demanded that a school of their own be built on the same spot, and they had lost.

Beit Shemesh’s story is unique in its degree of violence, but a similar dynamic is at work in other towns across Israel. The growth of the haredi population has forced younger haredim to establish communities in cities far from their traditional centers. In Ashdod and Rehovot, for instance, haredi neighborhoods have sprung up amid non-haredi majorities. In other cases, such as in Modi’in Ilit, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Elad, about 15 miles east of Tel Aviv, self-sustained communities have been formed.

Beit Shemesh-style battles are being waged in these places as well. The demand for gender-segregated buses has received the most attention since more and more Israelis are being exposed to them as haredim spread out geographically and are forced to use intra-city lines.

The case of Doron Matalon was a particularly startling example. Matalon, a young female soldier in uniform, was verbally attacked by Shlomo Fuchs, 45, a father of 12 with no paying job who devotes his time to the study of Torah, according to local media reports. When she refused his request to move to the back of the bus, arguing that as a soldier who helped protect him from Israel’s many enemies she deserved his respect, Fuchs and other haredi men on the Jerusalem bus allegedly hurled insults at her, calling her a prostitute. Matalon filed sexual harassment charges, and Fuchs was placed under house arrest.

The media’s coverage of such incidents has been extensive and intense; witnessing a fast-growing and increasingly confident haredi population force its puritanical sensibilities on the wider public can be unnerving. Haredim make up about 10 percent of Israel’s population of 7.8 million. But with haredi natural growth three times higher than that of the secular population—the average haredi woman has about seven children—by 2059 the haredim could make up 40 percent of the population, according to recently released projections by the Central Bureau of Statistics. With sectarian tensions so extreme now, when the haredi community is just a small minority, what will happen when Israel becomes dominated by a huge, ever more demanding haredi population?

Added to these worries is the fact that the haredi population has become a growing liability to the Israeli economy. Over 70 percent of haredi men are neither employed nor looking for work, according to a 2007 Bank of Israel study. And the haredi education system is producing a steadily growing number of male Torah scholars who might be able to learn a page of Talmud but do not have the tools to integrate into an increasingly knowledge-based labor market. What’s more, these same young men are skirting military service in large numbers. Every year the IDF loses 13 percent of its draft potential because the vast majority of haredim opt to defer army service indefinitely. The IDF estimates that 60,000 haredi young men of draft age receive deferrals. More than any other single group, it is the haredim who threaten to undermine the Israeli ethos of “the people’s army,” which calls for Israelis from all segments of society except Arabs to serve in the IDF.  

Many Israelis are terrified of the consequences of all these developments. This is especially true as Israeli society becomes more pluralistic. David Ben-Gurion’s willingness to make concessions to the haredim in the first decades after the establishment of the state of Israel was the direct result of his conviction that his version of secular Zionism would soon become the dominant force in all aspects of Israeli society, while Judaism as a religion, especially in its most extreme expressions, would disappear. Respecting religious sensibilities and avoiding conflicts would best facilitate the gradual indoctrination of the haredim. 

Today, however, the haredim seem to be on the ascendency while no other single group within Israeli society, including secular Ashkenazim, can fully and confidently claim to represent a self-confident “mainstream.” As a result, many secular Israelis perceive the haredim as a threat and tend to react in an extreme, anti-pluralistic fashion to haredi behavior. At the peak of the controversy over gender-segregated buses, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat essentially reiterated a Supreme Court ruling from January 2011 that forbade public bus companies to advertise bus lines as mehadrin (segregated) or to enforce segregation—but allowed for a one-year experiment in voluntary segregation. Livnat said that she was not bothered by the fact that haredi males and females travelling in haredi areas chose of their own free will to sit separately since “that is their way of life.” Numerous members of Knesset from the centrist Kadima and leftist Meretz parties were quick to attack Livnat, claiming she was encouraging extremism and the social exclusion of women.

But if secular Israelis are terrified of a haredi takeover, haredim feel no less beleaguered, in part because Livnat’s willingness to respect the haredi community’s unique social and moral codes is so controversial. Various initiatives such as the Freedom Rider Project organized by the Israeli Reform movement—in which women purposely and provocatively sit at the front of buses that travel between haredi towns to ensure that the Supreme Court decision is being upheld—are seen, with justice, by the haredi community as an intrusive attack on their religiously inspired social norms.  

The threat to their social norms is real and growing, and it comes not from provocations like the Freedom Rider Project but from the end of haredi cultural segregation. Haredim, spread out as they are in far-flung communities, are increasingly coming into contact with non-haredi Jewish populations. Access to the Internet is impossible to prevent. Exposure to alternative Jewish lifestyles has become unavoidable. 

The haredim are also in the grips of an economic crisis. Deep welfare cuts, begun in 2003—during a rare period when a government coalition was formed without haredi political parties—struck a serious blow to haredim families. And the economic downturn in America has drastically reduced donations to haredi educational institutions in Israel. Pressure is building for haredi men and women to find gainful employment. The process is happening fast, and haredi leadership rightly feels it is losing control.

A self-defeating dynamic is playing out within haredi society: To counter the increased risk of defection that exposure to the outside world poses and to induce members to prove loyalty, the community has adopted stringent measures which members are expected to uphold. But these measures themselves become a catalyst for additional defections.

Haifa University sociologist Oz Almog believes this dynamic has contributed to a huge discrepancy between public statements by leading rabbinic authorities and the realities on the ground. A recent front page from the haredi daily Yated Ne’eman illustrates the point: At the top of the page is an edict from a heavyweight rabbinic authority lamenting the spiritual dangers of the Internet and forbidding its use. At the bottom of the same page is an ad for a job, including a request that CVs be sent by e-mail. 

In nearly every realm of their lives, haredim are undergoing rapid changes. The official leadership continues to oppose these changes publicly, but is helpless to stop them. Despite warnings by the rabbis of the spiritual dangers of learning secular subjects, colleges that cater exclusively to the haredi population are producing haredi lawyers, accountants, social workers, computer programmers, and psychologists. Despite an attempt backed by leading rabbinic figures at the beginning of 2010 to close them down, at least two haredi Internet sites that provide news on the community continue to operate. There are “kosher” cellphones that provide only the most basic functions, but few use them instead of smartphones. Internet access is widespread, even though rabbis permit its use only for business needs. An entire genre of fiction, including science fiction, written by haredim for haredim has developed even though most rabbinic leaders view time spent reading such materials as wasted. And popular haredi parental guidance literature now advises parents to replace strict hierarchical relationships between parents and children with a more democratic, liberal-minded approach as a means of stemming defections among haredi youths.

Echoing Ben-Gurion’s strategy of quiet indoctrination, Almog believes attacks on haredim, motivated principally by unjustified fears, are counterproductive because they arouse haredi fears of secular tyranny and meddling in their personal affairs, and they serve to strengthen the extremists. “The best strategy is to let the haredi community continue to pretend that it listens to the rabbis,” Almog says, “while allowing inevitable changes to proceed unhindered.”

Unfortunately, it seems that fear is the driving force behind religious conflict in Israeli society. Haredim fear inevitable changes they cannot control, changes they mistakenly believe are likely to lead to spiritual destruction. In reality, their society is evolving in a positive and healthy direction.

Meanwhile, many Israelis fear that a rapidly growing haredi population will increasingly impose its fundamentalist will on a shrinking secular majority. What they do not realize is that long before the haredi population reaches the critical mass needed to dictate policy, it will have undergone a radical change for the better.

About the Author

Mati Wagner is editorial page editor of the Jerusalem Post. His article, “The Israeli Left: A Political Obituary,” appeared in the October 2011 issue.

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