Israel’s Haredim Have to Change and Coronavirus Could Be the Catalyst

Surviving the present pandemic and future ones depends among other things on integrating the ultra-Orthodox ‘society of learners’ into Israeli society once and for all

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral for Rabbi Mordechai Leifer
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral for Rabbi Mordechai Leiferm, violating lockdown, Oct. 5, 2020Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

There are Haredim out there who take the lockdown directives seriously. They are keeping their children home from school. The men (not just the women) have jobs that they are not going to, or are doing online from the house. They may even use the internet to keep informed about the progress of the coronavirus and how to cope with it. When they go out, they wear masks and when they pray, they do it in capsules.

A lot of them are undoubtedly the much-touted Haredi middle class, the avant garde of what many have hoped will be the slow but steady integration of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society. But the coronavirus and the Haredi rebellion against the lockdown have shown just how marginal the phenomenon of this middle class really is, and how urgent is the need for integration.

It’s long been acknowledged that the Haredi “society of learners,” in which children receive little more than a Torah education and adult men shun regular work for a life of religious study, poses a long-term threat to Israel’s economy. Such a big and growing share of the population failing to work and pay taxes and reliant on government help is an insufferable burden on the rest.

The coronavirus is now showing us that if pandemics become a recurrent feature of modern life, as many expect, the society of learners can also pose a threat to public health, too. Confirmed coronavirus cases among ultra-Orthodox communities account for half the total in Israel, four times their share of the population, but most have angrily resisted lockdown measures.

Inducing the ultra-Orthodox out of poverty and into the job market is a daunting challenge. It’s not just that the Israeli Haredi ideology prioritizes Torah study over labor or that the government subsidizes yeshiva and kollel study: The Haredi educational system leaves its young men without the education and skills for anything but menial jobs.

A decade or so ago, there were some signs that this was changing. More of the ultra-Orthodox were joining the workforce, pursuing a higher education and using the internet. Poverty rates were declining rapidly. But the numbers were misleading and, in any event, they have started retreating in recent years as Netanyahu surrendered to ultra-Orthodox pressure.

In the jobs market, the labor force participation rate for Haredi men never exceeded 52% (far less than the 83% for other Jewish men) and has actually fallen in recent years. In higher education, the rate of growth in Haredi enrolment has slowed and was a marginal phenomenon to begin with. In the 2018/19 academic year, about 3,600 Haredi men enrolled for degrees. The number of students in kollels (where older men study Torah) was almost 30 times that rate and growing more rapidly.

To the extent there has been a revolution, it’s been among Haredi women. Women account for 70% of Haredi students in colleges and universities. Their labor force participation rate in 2018 was 76%, not much lower than the 83% for other Jewish women. Their wages on average in 2018 were 82% of their non-Haredi sisters, a much smaller gap than between Haredi/non-Haredi males.

Women’s work has helped lower the Haredi poverty rate from its peak of 57% in 2005 to 43% in 2018. It’s even enabled the rudiments of a consumer culture to develop. More Haredim own a car (44% as of 2018), use a computer (60%) and the internet (49%) and travel abroad (17%) than a decade or more ago. A few even have adopted middle class mores.

Unfortunately, the rise of the bread-winning Haredi women isn’t likely to bring change in the community’s prevailing norms. They face a far more powerful and stubborn patriarchy than secular women and they remain firmly implanted in the Haredi universe. When they get a degree, it’s not necessarily to learn about the wider world; they are likely to major in education or some other practical course of study so they can find work safely inside their community.

On the other hand, the coronavirus, with its legacy of sickness and death, could be the catalyst for change.

Haredim may conclude that it would not only be wise to obey lockdown and safety rules in the future, but they may also come to see that their very economic structure, marked by poverty and crowded conditions, is itself an infection risk. The imperative to climb out of poverty and dependence on the rabbis and welfare can only lead to the obvious conclusion that they need a secular education in order to find the work that will enable them to do that.

And, the sooner the better. The economy cannot tolerate a large and growing minority who shun modern education and work, and society can’t afford to have a minority that defies public health policies. Indeed, the government’s official policy is that the Haredim can and will be integrated into Israeli society. But as anyone can tell from the painful and convoluted history of the draft, there is little willingness on the part of the politicians, least of all Netanyahu, to see down ultra-Orthodox opposition. The change will have to be from the bottom up.