Who Are Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews?

With all the differences between and among these groups, it's impossible to define the word 'Haredi.'

The more Israeli society deteriorates and its skullcap-wearers divide and subdivide into groups and communities with differing lifestyles and differing relations with society and the state, the shallower the perspective from which secular people view them.

Who, in fact, is Haredi, a member of the ultra-Orthodox? Is it that fellow with the long side curls and a striped robe setting fire to trash cans, breaking reporters' bones and proudly declaring to a television camera that "every child born to me is revenge on the Zionists"? Are the Haredim those people from Beit Shemesh who a few weeks ago stoned a woman who was not modestly dressed, in their opinion, and almost killed her?

Maybe the Haredi is that thin, pale, shy young man walking in Bnei Brak, his eyes cast down, seeing nothing until he reaches the yeshiva, where he hides away until evening, poring over his books and barely remembering to eat or drink. Or maybe it's that portly Hasid walking along Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, pushing a stroller crammed with a baby and two toddlers, with a few more kids tagging along. Also on hand is his adolescent daughter wearing a long blue skirt, and at some distance, his wife, the mother of his children.

Or maybe they are the students at Kiryat Ono Academic College, who will be lawyers and accountants, or maybe the young woman who will be the treasurer of the Bnei Brak municipality, or MA students at Harvard University, or owners and staff at a Glatt kosher restaurant in Herzliya Pituah. And maybe they're the Chabadniks in their mitzvah tank, who light Shabbat candles in the heart of Tel Aviv. But do they not also belong to the group that seeks to take over Ramat Aviv? Woe to us - there's an internal split even there, between the messianists and the non-messianists, between the newly observant and the veterans, and so on.

With all these differences within and among these groups, it's impossible to define the word "Haredi," just as it's impossible to define "Jew" or "Arab" with all the human, religious, cultural and social variants of those definitions.

There is no connection between the newly religious man chanting "Na-Nah-Nahman" as he dances in the streets and the students at the college. There is certainly no connection between the future treasurer of the Bnei Brak municipality and the "Taliban mom" or the "starving mother" and her friends, or between a Hasidic child whose father and grandfather serve in the reserves and work for a living, and a young man "growing stronger" in his faith who makes his living collecting donations.

There is also no connection between those who start riots on Shabbat and the veteran Hasidic families of Netanya and Haifa, who work and pay taxes. And there is no connection between these families and Shlomo Benizri of Shas, for example, or his rabbi who encourages people to become religious. There is also a very great variety among Shas' hundreds of thousands of voters.

This large group of people, most of whom are deeply involved in Israeli society, is represented in politics and the media by individuals who are not elected, but appointed, and whose interests do not reflect their community's needs; sometimes they even oppose them. In addition, three other very damaging factors are at work in this community: the anti-Zionists from Jerusalem, the fanatic preachers and those who encourage people to become religious, and the extreme ultra-Orthodox nationalists (for example, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg and his son, who is active in Ramat Aviv).

These four factors come face to face with the distress of the secular, traditional and national-religious lower middle class. Worrying about losing the little socioeconomic security they have, these people fight to hold on at work, to pay for health care and a roof over their heads, to take care of their elderly and educate their children. In their distress, they seek to place blame. They have two easy targets: the "Arabs," who courtesy of Yisrael Beiteinu have been branded "disloyal to the state," and the "Haredim", who since the advent of the Shinui party have been collectively dubbed "parasites."

These people who fear losing what they have should remember one small fact: Economic concerns are pushing many moderate religious Jews into Haredi arms, just as economic, social, cultural and national concerns are pushing the moderate Arab community into the Islamic Movement's arms. And the writing on the wall points a finger not at the "Arabs" or the "Haredim," but at the government, which has abandoned its citizens to extremists.