Israel's Ultra-Orthodox: More Israeli, More Rightist

As young ultra-Orthodox people continue to blend into society and develop an Israeli identity, the Haredi leadership must consider its steps.

Ofer Vaknin

Jerusalem Day winds up the “Days of Awe” period – if I may borrow the term that usually refers to the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – which includes Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and, obviously, Independence Day. This secular version of the Days of Awe challenges the delicate coexistence between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews.

The ultra-Orthodox world, in its diverse streams, affects an isolationist stance which is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. With the passing years the younger generation views Zionism and the State of Israel in a totally different light than previous generations did. Past debates seem ridiculous to second- and third-generation young Haredim, who see Israel as a given reality that overall has benefited the world of Torah, whether by mistake or for lack of choice.

A survey of ultra-Orthodox men at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem conducted by Chaim Danino as part of the Shluchei Tzibur (community leaders) program for outstanding Haredi men in the academic world found, not surprisingly, that the more involved Haredi men become in the general society, the stronger becomes their Israeli identity.

The change is also obvious in formats for the exchange of ideas. The traditional cloistered and establishment-associated ultra-Orthodox press is being replaced by open Haredi websites, as well as by social media. These are used by ultra-Orthodox people for exchange of information and for forming social ties, in addition to serving as agents of change and messengers of key new ideas. These groups initiate alternative Memorial Day ceremonies for ultra-Orthodox people, as well as debates on attitudes to state-sanctioned ceremonies. The websites show a growing identification with the state and its symbols.

While the Haredim are becoming unequivocally more “Israeli” than in the past, their civic education is usually deficient, since the ultra-Orthodox educational network refrains from including any civics studies in its curriculum. Thus, an ideological vacuum is created, into which radical right-wing and messianic ideas can easily flow.

Danino’s numbers include political opinions: The largest group of Haredim (43 percent) identify themselves as right-wing, with 27 percent describing themselves as centrist. The left is supported by 14 percent while 14 percent have no declared political orientation.

The general rightward drift in the Israeli public explains some of this trend. Beyond that, a young Haredi man just embarking on developing an Israeli identity, whether through military service, national service, academic studies or work, feels a natural affinity with the national-religious parts of society, the ones bearing the banners of the right-wing ideology. This affinity is not personal – the common way of life promotes identification where a secular Israeli identity fails to attract.

As increasing numbers of young ultra-Orthodox people continue to blend into society and develop an Israeli identity, a Haredi leadership that wishes to preserve the unique identity and values of their society must consider its steps. Not only they must do so. Israeli leaders who internalize this demographic change and the potential it holds must devote some thought to the manner in which young Haredi people form their Israeli identity.

If a rightist-religious ideology conquers large segments of ultra-Orthodox society, it will deliver a deadly blow to any chance for solving the conflict with the Palestinians in the future. Despite the gloomy reality which faces us today, I’d like to cling to the hope that such a forecast will never come true.

The writer is an ultra-Orthodox woman who is working in her community to raise awareness of political and diplomatic issues and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.