The Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, Hebrew for “House of the Sun,” recently witnessed a modern-day reenactment of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a bus.
Rachel Weinstein, a secular Beit Shemesh resident, earned international recognition after refusing an ultra-Orthodox passenger’s demand for gender segregation on a local bus, in spite of the compliance of other female passengers. By virtue of her action, Weinstein joined individuals such as Doron Matalon, a young female soldier who was accosted for freely choosing a seat on a public bus, and 8-year-old Naama Margolis, who was spit on and verbally abused for being dressed “immodestly” on her way to school.
But who are the ultra-Orthodox Israelis in these episodes? Are the underpinnings of their goals religious, social, or political? In what way does their conservatism complicate Israel’s identity as a Jewish homeland? These and more questions are the focus of intense debate among politicians, human rights activists, academics and aware citizens – both Israeli and international.
Understanding, or at least conceiving an informed opinion of, the Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews requires an acquaintance with their background and circumstances. The story of the clash between secular Jews and the Haredim – another name for the ultra-Orthodox – dates back to the rise of the modern Zionist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While secular Zionists advocated for an active pursuit of Jewish political independence and a gradual replacement of religious with nationalist sentiments, the Haredi Jews believed that divine intervention was the only legitimate catalyst for the formation of Israel. Yet the two Jewish groups, forced to work together against foreign enemies, reached a political understanding known as the Status quo agreement. Part of this agreement stipulated that then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion would exempt from the otherwise mandatory military service Haredi religious scholars who wanted to focus solely on Torah study. In addition, because the Haredim considered work an unnecessary detraction from their studies, they would receive substantial financial support from the state.
Yet Ben Gurion could hardly have foreseen the escalation of the conflict between the two groups. As more and more Haredi Jews chose to eschew the military in pursuit of religious study, the community as a whole began to succumb to political and educational apathy. Contemporary Haredi realities are striking: recent labor polls have shown, for instance, that around 65 percent of working age Haredi men are unemployed. Moreover, it is customary for Haredi children to cease studying subjects such as mathematics and history in eighth grade, thereafter basing any further academic pursuits on the study of religious texts. Few Haredi families own a television or a computer and none that do allow unfiltered media material to be broadcasted in their homes.
As can be expected, the effects of these Haredi traditions have begun to affect the state of Israel in its entirety. While the ultra-Orthodox are spending their lives in the seminaries, the rest of the Israeli Jews must shoulder the burdens of taxation and conscription. And since their lack of formal education renders the Haredim unable to join the workforce, the poverty currently plaguing Haredi communities may soon spread to the rest of Israel. Experts estimate that by 2034 one out of five Israelis will be ultra-Orthodox due to high Haredi fertility rates.
Many of the most extreme Haredim still refuse to recognize Israel’s statehood, claiming that the coming of the Messiah is the only act that can facilitate the creation of a Jewish state. Still others are among the strongest defiers of a territorial compromise with the Palestinians, citing God’s covenant with Abraham whereby the land of Israel was granted to the Jews. The current demographic predictions show that their political presence may increase, thus rendering Israeli society increasingly right wing.
It is worth pointing out that these substantial issues are surfacing at a time when the conflict with Palestine is no longer dominating international headlines in the way it once did. Arguably, the absence of progress on the Palestinian issue is making the Israelis look inward toward their own domestic crises. And as the Haredi community grows larger and more confrontational, concern for how to deal with the social disruptions and violence grows as well. Many commentators argue that secular protesters, despite the support they are receiving from the government, may soon have to replace their signs inscribed with mottos such as “Israel is not Tehran” with other means of overcoming the Haredim.
Israeli politicians are attempting with increasing anxiety to resolve these issues. But what such a resolution will entail – one that will reflect both on how the international community perceives Israel and how the Jewish people perceive themselves – is decidedly unclear.