Jewish Journal

Does world Jewry have the right to say that Jerusalem has a Haredi problem?

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks with his children on a street in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The study is not yet fully available (it will be posted on the JPPI website in the next 2-3 days), but it is already making headlines: The Jewish People Policy Institute’s structured dialogue on the Jewish people and Jerusalem found that the demographic growth of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem is more of a concern to world Jewry than the demographic growth of Arab residents in the city.

I have the full report — because I was a co-head of the project (with Senior JPPI fellow John Ruskay) — so I would like to explain why this study should be of great concern to all those who care about the Jewish people: It backs with quotes and data the sense of a growing trend of alienation between Orthodox (mainly Haredi) Jews and non-Orthodox Jews.

This trend is troubling for many reasons, but, as JPPI states in its recommendations, it is especially troubling “since in both Israel and the Diaspora the relative numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews are on the rise, and hence the presence and influence of such Jews within the community are expected to grow.” In other words, a growing, vibrant, and at times assertive minority is seen by most other Jews as a problem. That was the reason for JPPI to make the following (probably controversial) recommendation in its report:

“Jewish leadership around the world ought to be more aware and more considerate of Haredi sensitivities. This important segment of the community cannot be expected to accommodate itself to the rest of the community and tailor its agenda accordingly, without a parallel effort by the community to accommodate the needs of the Haredi group.”

It is easy to play a blame game as we consider this Haredi-non-Haredi divide. On both sides there is a tendency to see the behavior of the other group as the main source of trouble. In the report, we wrote the following paragraph:

“In almost all communities, participants refer to Haredi communities in negative terms, describing them in ways that would be unacceptable in many other venues, and expressing both apprehension and frustration with their actions. ‘I have a problem with control and domination by the Haredim, who I see as intolerant,’ a participant in St. Louis said. We, the Jews, ‘need to maintain a Jewish majority [in Jerusalem], but have more diversity in the Jewish population to balance the Haredi influence,’ said a participant in Sydney.”

But here is an interesting question: What if the easiest way of preserving a Jewish majority in Jerusalem is having Haredis make more children in Jerusalem?

At dialogue discussions — more than 40 such sessions were held around the world as we gathered information for the report — we did not specifically present this possible dilemma. But looking at the questions we did present to the participants, we might be able to take a guess.

For example, participants in the dialogue were asked if they thought the growth of the non-Jewish population in Jerusalem (that is, Arab) was a “positive development as it gives Jews and Arabs the opportunity to live together.” They were also asked if they thought the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population in Jerusalem was a “positive development as it gives Jews of various types the opportunity to live together.” The result is telling. There are far more Jews who see the growth of the Arab population as a positive development than Jews who see the growth of the Haredi population as a positive development.

This outcome, understandably, makes many people angry. One of them wrote to me this morning: “Jerusalem was a city which was entirely Haredi before the “Zionists” (The real Zionist were the Baal Shem Tov and HaGra who sent their students to a barren land) came and secularized the city. Beezrat Hashem, in a few years we will be the majority and Moshiach will drive out all secular people.” Some of them attached their angry comments to the Jerusalem Post article on this study, comments such as “So-called Diaspora leaders are the captains of sinking ships,” “What foreigners, with a marginal stake in the city, have to say is of marginal interest,” “World Jewry has its collective head in the sand,” and so on and so forth.

Anger can be found on both sides: Non-Haredi Jews are mad because of Haredi behavior and aggressiveness. Haredis are mad because it is their city more than it is the city of people who live in other countries. But in both cases anger clouds the vision of Jews: rather than asking who’s to blame, rather than getting mad, rather than debating whether this or that Jew has or doesn’t have the right to have an opinion, we should all try to figure out (that is, if we are interested in helping the Jewish people thrive) how to defuse an unhealthy situation of anger and alienation between Jews, in Jerusalem and elsewhere.