Haredim and Democracy Redux

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Over the weekend I became a bit uncomfortable with the previous column I posted last Thursday titled “Haredim and the Future of Israel.” This is a complicated issue and in my desire to shorten a long post I edited out some of the nuances.

I fear I may have implied that the Haredi world is monolithic. In fact, there are many different sects ranging from those who support the Jewish state to those who reject it. Some sects are more extreme than others in their religious practice or have different customs altogether.  Although they all share a similar worldview, the actions of the most extreme groups, who have attracted the attention of the media, have been criticized by many in the Haredi world or at the least not supported by them.

To illustrate an alternative lens through which to view the ultra-orthodox community, there was an interesting Op-Ed printed in Friday’s Haaretz that presented a modern woman’s positive experience, some might say even a quasi-feminist perspective, on the Haredi world. See http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/can-ultra-orthodox-culture-go-overboard-in-its-quest-for-modesty-1.408262

The writer, Robin Garbose, embraced orthodoxy as an adult and founded Kol Neshama, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides “professional artistic training and performance opportunities for girls and women in a Torah-observant setting….” (Her extensive bio in the entertainment industry and the performing arts can be found at http://www.kolneshama.org/staff-bio-robin-garbose/.)

Garbose directed the recently released film “The Heart that Sings,” a movie by and for women. The cultural divides that fracture Israeli society were on display when the film was shown at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv. (For those interested, you can read various responses to the event at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/tel-aviv-cinematheque-tries-to-bar-men-from-screening-of-film-by-ultra-orthodox-director-1.403985 and http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=250905)

On a related note, I felt that my previous post may have inadvertently lumped together the Haredi world with the more mainstream and larger Orthodox community within which there is diversity as well. An example is last Friday’s Op-Ed in The New York Times written by Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Bronx. Rabbi Linzer presented a modern Orthodox perspective and offered a strong critique of the extremist Haredi outlook. See his column “Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/opinion/ultra-orthodox-jews-and-the-modesty-fight.html?_r=3&src=tp .

And finally, for those that can’t get enough about this topic, Yossi Klein Halevi, the author and columnist who is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote an excellent overview of the Haredi-secular clash in this article from The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/israel-faces-up-to-religious-extremism/article2305648/

Democracy versus Judaism:

Today’s Haaretz has dueling Op-Ed pieces that also touch on my last post. The first is from Benny Katzover, the influential settler leader whom I quoted last Thursday as advocating the replacement of Israeli democracy with Judaism. Haaretz gave Katzover an opportunity to clarify his position which he did in this morning’s Sunday paper at this link: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/drought-and-emptiness-prevail-1.408550

I think he may have dug himself into an even deeper hole. Katzover presents a morally warped argument, within an Israeli context, to justify authoritarian or theocratic rule in the name of a higher goal.

Even worse, he uses factually incorrect statements to make his point. For example, he wrote, “the destruction of terrorists’ houses is generally prevented by the High Court.” He is referring to the policy of Palestinian home demolitions that the courts in Israel occasionally have prevented. Never mind that over 20,000 homes and other structures have been demolished by government bulldozers, often with little notice, bankrupting untold innocent families and making them homeless. Their crime was not housing terrorists but rather the inability of Palestinians to obtain building permits to meet their families’ needs or simply to do repairs that have to be done. This is just one example of how Katzover and his allies – a powerful and dominant force in Israeli government – has perverted the ethical and moral dimensions of Judaism for their version of serving God or some mythical Jewish destiny.

The response to Katzover was penned by Yair Sheleg at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/father-judaism-and-mother-democracy-1.408549 .

Although I question a few of the examples Sheleg offers at the beginning of his column, the latter half is a clear exposition of the inherent tensions built into any democracy, balancing the collective good against individual rights. By implication he exposes Katzover’s thesis as simplistic and lacking depth.

These two columns taken together are a replay of arguments by those who justify oppression in the name of some higher ideal versus those who defend the human dignity of every person.

Atlanta:

On an unrelated note – or perhaps some would say closely related – I expect many readers have already heard about the infamous column by Andrew B. Adler, the publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, who published a column on January 13th suggesting that the Mossad might consider assassinating Barack Obama. It almost slipped under the radar until Gawker.com picked it up last week and it has since gone viral. See: http://gawker.com/5877892/

Some say Adler is an aberration or he simply made a mistake. I think that is disingenuous. Rather he is a symptom of what has gone terribly wrong.

Haredim and the future of Israel

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Recently, the newspapers in Israel have been filled with articles about the clash of the ultra-orthodox, called Haredim, with Israelis who are oriented to the modern world. This conflict has been going on for decades but recently it has attained a new intensity that is galvanizing larger segments of the population. It seems every day there are headlines of new incidents or Haredi protests.

Overview of the Current Clash:

The latest flare-up began in December when two women, one secular and one Haredi herself, refused to move to the back of gender segregated buses that were designated to serve the requirements of the Haredi community. The actions of these women garnered front-page attention that compared them to Rosa Parks in long-ago Montgomery, Alabama. But the issue really gained traction when an 8-year old girl from a religious but non-Haredi family was spat upon and derided by Haredi men in the city of Beit Shemesh for being too immodestly dressed. 10,000 people rallied to support her along with women’s rights after she described on TV how she was scared to walk to school through her neighborhood’s Haredi gauntlet.

But as an article in the New York Times stated, these incidents were just the latest in a long festering clash. “The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.” (see the full article for more background at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/world/middleeast/israel-faces-crisis-over-role-of-ultra-orthodox-in-society.html)

More recently the concept of Kol Isha, a Jewish law that prohibits hearing the voice of a woman singing, has caused controversy in the Israel Defense forces (IDF). IDF policy is that all soldiers, no matter what their religious orientation, must attend ceremonies even if women are singing. The chief rabbi of the Air Force resigned in protest and this week, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, an influential rabbi who directs a hesder yeshiva (a yeshiva that combines Torah study with army service) also said he would be resigning over this issue. He charged that the IDF is “bringing us close to a situation in which we will have to tell [male] soldiers, ‘You have to leave such events even if a firing squad is set up outside, which will fire on and kill you.'” (For some insight into the orthodox perspective on this, see http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/article.php?p=114857 . Note the comments at the bottom.)

Lest you think the conflict is only about gender issues, this week a 3rd grade boy in Beit Shemesh revealed that on two recent occasions he had been physically attacked or threatened by Haredim in his neighborhood, once for walking his dog which is considered “impure.” See http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/ultra-orthodox-teens-accost-u-s-immigrant-boy-in-beit-shemesh-1.407677

Some Background:

This controversy represents a clash of worldviews that might have ramifications beyond the particular issues that are causing the current friction. There is huge resentment towards the Haredi world from the general public, especially among those who identify as secular. Two-thirds of Haredi men do not work. Most study in yeshivas full-time supported by government subsidies. Few serve in the army. They have their own school systems where secular subjects are seldom taught (math, science, foreign languages or non-religious history). Thus they are not equipped to participate in a modern economy and have a distinctive worldview.

Government subsidies also provide allowances for each child, making it somewhat easier for them to practice the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply” resulting in very large families. Haredim are mostly very poor. They draw significant resources from the state without contributing their fair share economically. Although one of their main values is the intrinsic worth of Torah study, this is not meaningful for much of the Israeli public.

Because of the way that the political system works in Israel, minority parties like those that represent Haredi interests have inordinate influence in the coalition governments that are formed. Such is the case today as it has been in the past, no matter which major party was in power. However, the breaking point may be approaching, especially given the large social protest movement from last summer when thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding a change in government and economic policies.

Demographics

Let’s leave the current controversies for a minute and take a look at this from a broader perspective.

The total population of Israel is 7.8 million. This includes 250,000 Palestinians in the annexed part of East Jerusalem, 42,000 residents of the Golan Heights (mainly Jewish and Druze) and the 325,000 Jews who live over the Green Line in the West bank. It does not include the Palestinians who live in the West Bank outside of Jerusalem and over 200,000 migrant workers in Israel.

Out of the total 7.8 million population,

  • 75%, or 5.5 million are Jewish
  • Almost 20% are Arab: 1,240,000 Muslim (16.8%) and 153,000 Christian (2.1%). This includes the 250,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
  • 1.7%  (122,000) are Druze, a non-Muslim group mostly located in northern Israel and the Golan Heights.
  • Roughly 4% are not classified.

Now, getting back to the Haredi/secular divide, let’s look at the religious composition of the Jewish population. A study done by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics in 2010 asked Jews over 18 years old to define themselves.

  • 8% of these adults said they were Haredi. However, they have a high birth rate with many families having 10 or more children. For example, despite being a minority of 32% of the population in Jerusalem, they account for 60% of the children attending elementary school. Thus their percentage of the total population including children is higher. It is estimated that their population will double in 16 years.
  • 12% stated they were “religious”: non-Haredi orthodox, known as national religious or religious Zionist.
  • 13% said they were “religious-traditionalists”: mostly adhering to Jewish Halacha (Jewish law and observance). Their level of observance probably varies widely.
  • 25% are “non-religious traditionalists”: only partly respecting Jewish Halacha. This probably includes regular Friday night Shabbat meals with family and some observance of holidays.
  • 43% defined themselves as “secular.”

Remember, these figures represent adults. Due to the higher birth rates of the religious, Haredi and non-Haredi, the total percentage including children of the religiously oriented is much higher as is their growth rate.

An article in the Jerusalem Post (http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=214979) cited a report released in 2011 that forecast that by 2030, only 18 years from now, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population will be religious – a reality that could lead to several different results, including an increase in poverty, the annexation of the West Bank settlements and Israel’s deterioration into an anti-democratic country.

The report, which was compiled by Prof. Arnon Soffer, who holds the Reuven Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy at the University of Haifa, also concluded that by 2030, the Haredi population will reach more than a million people, which will place an especially high economic burden on the secular population.

“As long as the Haredi percentage of the population increases, the economic gaps between the Haredi population and the remainder of the population will continue to grow, requiring a greater transfer of funds [from the secular population] to support them.”

The report goes on to state. “The public agenda, the public square and the cultural aspects of the country stand to all reflect the spirit of the Haredi and religious world…. Education will become Torah-based, courts will be operated according to Jewish religious law and much of the media will undergo a transformation in which a large amount of the content it broadcasts will disappear.”

The report concludes that, without changes in policy, this will lead to greater emigration of the secular population, further accelerating these demographic trends. There is an interesting article by Dr. Lawrence Davidson, professor of Middle East history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, that plays out this scenario in greater detail at http://axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/Article_63302.shtml?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+axisoflogic%2FAxisFeed+%28axisoflogic.com%29 .

Indeed this narrative is already being reflected on the West Bank with influential settler leader Benny Katzover’s recent call for getting rid of democracy. He stated, “The main role of Israeli democracy now is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its role, and it must disassemble and give way to Judaism. All leads toward recognition that there is no other way but to place Judaism at the center, above all else, and this is the answer to every situation.” (http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/dismantle-israeli-democracy-and-replace-it-with-jewish-law-says-settler-leader-1.406035)

But as even Professor Davidson points out, the future scenarios are still conjecture. We need to keep in mind that much could change in the coming decades. The less religious and secular segments of society are feeling embattled, both economically and culturally, and a backlash could easily occur that would change many of these dynamics. There was a fascinating Op-Ed in Haaretz recently that pointed out the coming election could surprise everyone. Almost 800,000 voters, mostly Arab and those on the left, chose not to vote in the last election but are very likely to do so in the next one. They represent 25% of those who last voted (3.3 million) and could change the political dynamic in Israel today – which, by changing government priorities and policies, could impact how the society is structured in the future. For this excellent piece, see http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/israel-s-arabs-and-seculars-will-return-to-the-polls-1.406379

Interestingly, Israel’s Arab citizens could play a key role in changing the political dynamic if they choose to participate in greater numbers and if the Jewish parties and their constituencies would be willing to form coalitions with them. The Arab community also has a very high birth rate – their percentage of the population has doubled since 1950 despite the massive immigration of Jews during much of that period. How fast this population grows and how it interacts with the Jewish majority is a wildcard in the mix.

Nothing is a given. In the meantime, the Jewish religious-secular conflict is playing out on the streets of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Depending on one’s perspective, one can be filled with despair or with hope.

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