Opinion

Israel Is Not Becoming a Jewish Fundamentalist State

Israel's ultra-Orthodox leaders triggered another round of farcical crises about the military draft and infrastructure work carried out on Shabbat. Far from being a show of strength, it's a sign of their terminal political weakness – and loss of control over their flock

Israeli soldiers secure the area as ultra-Orthodox Jews walk to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, in the West Bank city of Hebron. Oct. 9 2006
AP

Israeli politics is gripped right now by two simultaneous political “crises” over state and religion. Both threaten to rip the government apart. Both are farcical affairs that could be solved easily and ultimately will be.

The longer crisis is the interminable wrangling over the bill regulating the number of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, yeshiva students to be drafted into the army each year. The newer crisis is reflected in the scheduled closures of Tel Aviv’s main highway to allow for the building of a new pedestrian bridge. Construction is planned for when there’s minimal traffic, on Shabbat.

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Everyone knows how these crises will end. The bill on the draft will pass, as the quotas can be easily filled by young men who have dropped out of yeshivas anyway. And the bridge construction will be delayed for a few weeks of huffing and puffing and then go ahead on Shabbat as planned, as nearly all major disruptive infrastructure projects have gone on in the past.

In closed rooms, most ultra-Orthodox politicians, if they’re honest, will tell you they know that there’s no other way. And most of the rabbis giving them orders on how to vote know this as well. But there’s a minority of Haredi rabbis who for reasons best known to themselves have decided to make this a point of principle, and all the rest have no choice but to support the most radical of the bunch. Until they see sense.

The rabbinical muscle-flexing causes many Israelis to despair that their country is falling ever more under the sway of a fundamentalist minority. But, if anything, it’s a sign of weakness. None of the three main Haredi groupings – the Hasidim, the Mizrahim or the so-called Lithuanians – currently have anything resembling an established hierarchy. The death of figures like rabbis Ovadia Yosef, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Aharon Leib Shteinman have left entire communities without an agreed-on leader.

A lack of a major non-Hasidic, Lithuanian rabbi at this moment is particularly significant. While the Hasidim have always been divided into self-contained “courts,” and the Mizrahi rabbis have been relegated by their Ashkenazi colleagues to second-rate status, the relatively meritocratic Lithuanians have been the guardians of hashkafa – literally perspective, or Haredi ideology. But with the final departure of the last members of a generation of rabbis who rebuilt in Israel the old east European yeshivas destroyed in the Holocaust, schisms have left their followers squabbling over which octogenarian should carry on the torch.

Unsustainable economic model

The tension between the Haredim and the rest of Israeli society over bridges and the draft is the least of the community’s worries. The ultra-Orthodox’s exponential growth over the last half century and demographers’ projections that by 2050 this community could top 20 percent of Israel’s population hide a crucial flaw.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish father and son in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim of Jerusalem. September 13, 2017
THOMAS COEX / AFP

There is no other example in the world of a community enjoying the benefits of modern medicine and social security and still encouraging all its members to marry as young as legally possible and have as many children as physically possible. It’s an unsustainable economic model, and the Haredi housing crisis is one of the most underreported social issues in Israel.

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The ethos of their leaders over the last 70 years was that as a minority and as faithful remnants of a largely fictional past, the community had to remain apart from the rest of Israeli society, shut out the modern world and concentrate on Torah study. The fact is, at no time in history was any Jewish community capable of maintaining anything larger than a tiny elite of men who were capable of devoting their lives to study.

What was possible for a brief blip in history – through a combination of fundraising in the Diaspora and, since 1977 when the ultra-Orthodox parties became a regular fixture in Likud coalitions, through government subsidies and benefits for yeshiva students – is swiftly becoming impossible. Young Haredi men and women are increasingly reluctant to live in self-inflicted penury, especially while they can no longer close their eyes to the drastically rising living standards of others in Israel.

It was easier to keep the outside world outside when anyone owning a television, the main avenue of information in the last generation, was ostracized from the community. Televisions and their antennas couldn’t be hidden from prying eyes. Smartphones with internet access can. And when the rabbis got the providers to allocate special numbers for “kosher phones” that can’t log on to the internet, resourceful young Haredim simply bought two devices – one for making phone calls and the other for everything else.

The new Haredi outlook

But a window on the world isn’t enough. The result of a childhood in an education system (a state-funded one) where any learning beyond the most basic mathematical skills is forbidden has left an entire generation without the skills necessary in the modern workplace.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting a bill that would draft them into the military, Jerusalem, July 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

There’s a limit to the number of young couples prepared to keep living in households where the father doesn’t have any income beyond a stipend and where the mother can at most work part-time in a low-income job, until she’ll simply have too many children at home to continue. And even if such couples are stuck in this predicament, many no longer wish it for their children.

The small number of Haredi high schools that offer limited programs of secular studies is growing. Private courses in English and computer programming are oversubscribed. The demographers may still project the Haredi community doubling in size over the next two decades, but more realistic trends are already emerging. The average marriage age is slowly snaking upwards and the average number of children is down.

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It’s too early to predict how and when the next exodus from the Haredi world will take place. In the past these have been prompted by other upheavals – the Enlightenment in Europe, mass emigration to America, the communist revolution, the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel.

This time the cause will be internal – a growing community straining at the seams and incapable of sustaining itself as a “learners society.” Disillusioned Haredim are less likely, in the privacy of the voting booth, to follow their rabbis’ orders and vote accordingly. The Shas party has already shrunk and in the polls is now hovering at around the electoral threshold, perilously close to oblivion. United Torah Judaism is stable, but with the natural growth of its “natural” constituency, it should have been much larger.

The rabbis’ diminishing political power reflects their lack of bravery and authority to deliver the pragmatic solutions their community needs and change an ethos that has only existed for a couple of generations anyway. In their weakness, the Haredi leaders, scared of inevitable change, will continue to issue increasingly radical and stringent edicts. Secular Israelis will continue to grumble about the rabbis taking control of the country.

But they’re not the ones bearing the brunt of fundamentalism. The ultra-Orthodox hegemony is breaking down, and these farcical political crises are just its death throes.