Survey shows broad dissatisfaction with Israeli religious policy


Secular and haredi Orthodox Israelis differ on many things, but there’s one thing both sides agree on: When it comes to religious affairs, the government is failing.

That’s one of the findings of an annual survey of Israeli religious identification and attitudes toward religious policy released Friday by Hiddush, a 6-year-old organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel.

The survey found that 95 percent of secular respondents are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of religious issues, with large majorities favoring civil marriage or civil unions and official recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.

But the survey also reported dissatisfaction with religious policy among 81 percent of haredi Orthodox Israelis, despite the fact that haredi parties regained control over the Religious Affairs Ministry and the powerful Knesset Finance Committee following the March elections. Since then, the parties have set about rolling back several reforms adopted by the previous government by removing the teeth from a law drafting haredi men into the military and repealing a conversion reform passed last year.

“When the haredim are unhappy, they’re unhappy about something different than why the secular [Israelis] are unhappy,” Rabbi Uri Regev, the Hiddush CEO, told JTA. “To many of them, Israel is not giving them enough, not enforcing their prerogatives enough, not enforcing Shabbat observance.”

Covering a broad spectrum of questions on religious policy and identification, the Hiddush survey reported large majorities of Israelis supporting religious policy change, as it has every year since the poll began in 2009. Sixty-four percent of Jewish Israelis support recognizing Conservative and Reform conversions — not just Orthodox, as is currently the case. Nearly three-quarters of Israelis want public transit on Shabbat. And 86 percent of respondents support haredi men performing military or civilian national service.

“There is clearly a growing, solid, overwhelming majority of Israelis who are unhappy about the way religion and state are linked and impacting the lives of individuals and the state,” Regev said. “The public clearly does not like what the Israeli government has provided it with.”

The survey also found a rise in support for same-sex marriage — with 64 percent in support, compared to 56 percent last year. The jump follows national legalization of gay marriage in the United States and a stabbing attack at the Jerusalem gay pride parade in July that killed a 16-year-old girl. But a substantial portion of Israel’s governing coalition opposes same-sex marriage, making its passage unlikely.

Israelis’ long-held desire for religious reform hasn’t led to corresponding government action. According to Regev, that’s because Israelis, when voting, place less of a priority on religion than security or economics. That was especially true ahead of this year’s election following a war in Gaza and much public discussion about skyrocketing housing prices. Religious issues didn’t even register in a March pre-election poll that asked about the country’s most pressing concerns. Nor have issues like marriage and conversion been subjects of major public protest.

In 2013, religious policy briefly rose in prominence as Yesh Atid became the Knesset’s second-largest party, promising to draft haredim and push for civil unions. But those issues faded as Israel entered last summer’s war in Gaza. In this year’s elections, the new kingmaker was Kulanu, a party largely focused on economics. Yesh Atid, meanwhile, lost eight seats and joined the parliamentary opposition.

“Yes, the majority of Israelis don’t like the way things are. Yes, they want religious freedom and equality,” Regev said. “But should that be the condition for sitting in the government? No. The challenge is how do you translate passive support and understanding of the issues into mobilization.”

A year of haredim taking to Jerusalem’s streets


A bus of black hats, whispered prayers and gender-segregated seating.

A mass of haredi Orthodox men — and some women — walking slowly together, packing the streets of northern Jerusalem.

Hundreds of thousands of voices wailing prayers of penitence, portraying a recent event as a tragedy beyond measure — and vowing to rededicate themselves to their way of life.

Something told me I’d been there before.

Since last spring, mass gatherings of haredi Israelis in Jerusalem have punctuated Israel’s news cycle. Last May, thousands of haredi men and women packed the Western Wall Plaza in a show of force against a ruling to allow Women of the Wall to pray there undisturbed. In October, some 800,000 people — 10 percent of the country — turned out for the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic sage.

And on Sunday, 300,000 haredi Israelis filled Jerusalem’s streets, shutting down its roads and transit, to protest the advancement of a bill that would require them to join Israel’s mandatory military conscription in three years.

Each of these gatherings was different — the Western Wall protest was much smaller and grew violent, while today’s was large and peaceful; the funeral wasn’t a protest at all.

But all the gatherings shared key characteristics:

They all carried a feeling of dire urgency. Be it the death of a leader, the purported misuse of a holy space or the endangering of a core communal privilege, the haredim who showed up acted as if what was happening threatened not just the haredi lifestyle but the core of Jewish tradition.

They all centered on prayer. Both the funeral and today’s conscription protest included saying psalms and penitential prayers usually reserved for the High Holidays. And while a faction of the Western Wall protesters acted violently, the vast majority prayed quietly or as a group. In fact, months ago leading haredi Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman advocated prayer over protest to fight the conscription law.

They all alluded to Jewish history. No matter the cause, the attendees portrayed themselves as another iteration of previous Jewish tragedy. Signs today compared the conscription law to slavery in Egypt, the Purim story (before the happy ending) or even the Holocaust. A few Western Wall protesters also had no problem calling Women of the Wall “Nazis.” And several eulogizers at the funeral compared Yosef’s death to the prophet Elijah’s.

They all had the endorsement of leading haredi rabbis. Leading rabbis from several haredi sects endorsed the Western Wall and conscription protests — turning out their followers in large numbers. All stripes of the haredi community paid tribute to Yosef’s memory. Several protesters at today’s demonstration said they came because their grand rabbis told them to.

Finally, none of the predictions made at these gatherings are likely to happen. Protesters at the Western Wall said they would not allow Women of the Wall to pray in peace; now, the group has the legal right to pray at the site and encounters minimal protest at its monthly gatherings. After the Yosef funeral, expert observers predicted a rift in the rabbi’s Shas political party that has yet to break open. And despite the haredi protestations today, the conscription law is expected to pass.

Haredim can exercise significant communal solidarity, and turning out large numbers for protests is one of their principal strengths. It’s likely due to the strength of their potential activism that the conscription bill is relatively cautious — not enforcing the haredi draft until 2017. Whatever happens, today’s protest demonstrated that while they may not be able to change a law, they can shut down Israel’s largest city for half a day.

Where do Israeli haredim stand on haredi violence?


The cascade of condemnations started pouring in almost as soon as the Israeli TV report aired. It’s subject was an 8-year-old girl harassed by haredi men on the way to her Modern Orthodox girls’ school in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh.

The Israeli prime minister and president vowed that Israel would not tolerate haredi violence against women, whether directed at schoolgirls or women on public buses. Israel’s opposition leader, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, went to a demonstration of thousands held Tuesday night in Beit Shemesh.

In America, too, the condemnations came fast and furious: Hadassah, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and the haredi Orthodox umbrella body Agudath Israel of America were among the many groups that responded.

There appeared to be just one segment of the Jewish community that was staying silent about the violence: Israeli haredim.

That’s because there is some ambivalence among haredi Israelis when it comes to religious zealotry.

“The question isn’t how many haredim support haredi violence and how many do not,” said sociologist Menachem Friedman, an expert on haredi life and professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University. “In all the conflicts involving haredi violence in Israel, from the British Mandate period until today, violent haredim were always a small minority, and I believe that the vast majority feel uncomfortable about them.

“The problem is that most haredim allow the extremists to act and do not stop them,” Friedman continued. “Some, perhaps a small segment, really do support the violence; some, perhaps a larger segment, do not support the violence but understand the extremists, believing that actions like these, even if they are not pretty, at the end of the day are a true expression of religious sentiments,” he said. “And the majority perhaps opposes the violence and knows that ultimately it’s bad for Judaism but doesn’t have the courage to go out and oppose it publicly.”

There were one or two notable exceptions this week.

“If there are those in our generation who believe that warfare is the way to spread the light of Judaism, they are mistaken,” the Jerusalem-based leader of the Belz Chasidim, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, said Sunday during the nightly Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at his synagogue, which holds upward of 6,000 people.

Rokeach’s comments, though tepid by secular standards, marked a rare foray into current events by the rebbe, who has an estimated 45,000 followers worldwide.

But the roundabout way the rebbe’s message was delivered, and the scant media coverage given to haredi opposition to the violence aimed at non-haredim, is indicative both of the difficulties outsiders have with discerning shades of gray in haredi society and the ambivalence within the haredi world toward using violence to achieve religious aims.

For one thing, Israeli haredi condemnations of violence are not delivered the same way as condemnations in the non-haredi world. They are generally directed inward, not outward; they tend to be delivered not in statements to the press but as words of Torah to followers; they are often spoken not in English or Hebrew, but in Yiddish; and they are expressed less as a reaction to current events than as calls for dignified behavior by Torah-observant Jews.

“The Belzer rebbe is one of the few people who has the guts to say something,” Tuvya Stern, a haredi attorney who lives in Beit Shemesh, told JTA. “But he’s not going to condemn the extremists; that’s not his way. He’ll just advocate for a different approach.”

Rokeach’s speech, which was reported in haredi media and noted by Israel Radio, was unusual both because it referred to current events and because it was aimed, at least in part, at a wider audience: The rebbe had invited an Israeli Knesset member, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, to be with him when he delivered his speech on Chanukah’s sixth night. Because Rokeach made his remarks in Yiddish, it’s not clear whether or not Sa’ar picked up on their significance.

Rokeach’s reaction, however, was exceptional. Most haredi leaders stayed silent.

The violent zealots are drawn largely from the Edah HaHaredis, a community of anti-Zionist haredim that is particularly strict even by haredi standards and has strongholds in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. The Edah is closely aligned with the Satmar Chasidic sect.

Haredi support for fighting a culture war against secularism extends beyond the Edah HaHaredis, but most haredim who espouse such views won’t go so far as to become defenders of the faith themselves. Haredim often invoke a classic metaphor to describe this approach: You may not want to live with a cat, but you need cats around to eat the mice if you want to prevent infestation.

This week, the “infestation” is the presence of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school, Orot, adjacent to a haredi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh. At other times, it has been the mixing of sexes in Orthodox neighborhoods, the operation of parking lots or roads on Shabbat in haredi neighborhoods, and attempts by women to pray with the Torah at the Western Wall.

Similar behavior can be found in certain Islamic societies and fundamentalist Catholic and Protestant communities, Friedman said, noting that a key difference with haredim is that any violence is relatively limited in scope, not involving serious injury or death.

Then there are haredim who oppose extremism but fear speaking out because they do not want to be seen as lax in matters of religion.

When Rabbi David Kohn, the leader of the Toldos Aharon sect of Chasidim, spoke out a few years ago against religious violence via a Yiddish-language Torah exegesis of the story of Pinchas the zealot in the Book of Numbers, he quickly was condemned in placards posted around his neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem.

Other haredim don’t speak out because they see fights like the one in Beit Shemesh not as a battle between extremists and moderates but as part of a broader Israeli assault on haredi life led by the mainstream Israeli media.

“The source of the pollution is in halachah [Jewish law] itself,” former Knesset member Yossi Sarid wrote in a column published Friday in Israel’s daily Haaretz. Sarid called for the disqualification of haredi parties from the Knesset. On Haaretz’s English-language website, the article was titled “Orthodox Judaism treats women like filthy little things.”

Facing such hostility, some haredim say, why get involved at all?

And then there is the large segment of haredim who see themselves as totally apart from the haredim perpetrating the violence. Their attitude is that if it’s not their community members, it’s not their business and they don’t need to get involved.

While to an outsider all haredim may look alike—with their black coats, hats and beards—the haredi community is as fractured as the Jewish community as a whole. In Israel, the haredi community is divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Chasidic and non-Chasidic, moderates and extremists. Within the Chasidic community, too, there are multiple sects—and sometimes even competing grand rebbes within the same sect.

But in a world seen by outsiders as monolithic, all haredim inevitably are associated with the extremism of a few, and haredi silence is seen as affirmation of haredi bad behavior.

It’s something that may irk haredim who are engaged with the outside world, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to haredim who aren’t.

That nonchalance is alien to the non-haredi Jewish world, where organizations and leaders go out of their way to denounce ideas, people or actions they find distasteful. That goes for everything from terrorist attacks to the bombing of churches in Nigeria, which at least four Jewish groups issued statements condemning this week.

When the main haredi umbrella organization in America issued its statement this week condemning the violence, it also took a shot at those denigrating haredim in general.

“Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended,” the Agudath Israel of America said in its statement. “It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.”

Until haredim take to their synagogue lecterns, the airwaves or the streets, however, that’s a message that’s unlikely to be heard by the Jewish public.

To be sure, there were a few haredim who joined Tuesday’s demonstration in Beit Shemesh against the violence. Some were members of a new local haredi party called Tov (Hebrew for “good”) whose platform espouses moderation and open-mindedness.

“It was a very hard decision” because many of the protesters were engaged in anti-haredi sloganeering, explained Stern, the haredi attorney from Beit Shemesh, who is a leading Tov activist. “There were signs at the rally saying ‘Haredim leave Beit Shemesh.’”

Nevertheless, he said, it was important to make a public statement.

“There are rabbis in the haredi world who believe in violence as part of a religious duty,” Stern said, “but they are not a large group of people.”

Religious zealots attack “immodest” Jerusalem shops


A sign at the ice cream parlor may caution men and women not to lick cones in public, but the warning didn’t stop Jewish zealots vandalizing the shop in Jerusalem’s main ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Other businesses in Mea Shearim, including a book store and dress shops, have been damaged in night-time attacks by Sikrikim, a group of some 100 ultra-religious men who want one of the holy city’s most tradition-bound quarters to become even more conservative.

“Promiscuity” reads graffiti scrawled in black at the entrance of a clothing shop selling dresses whose lengthy hemline and drab colors have been deemed too racy by the group.

Other stores in the neighborhood, where men wear traditional black garb and women bare little but their face, have had their windows broken, locks glued and foul-smelling liquid smeared on walls.

“They also threw once a bag of excrement inside and smashed our windows three times,” said Marlene Samuels, manager of the Or Hachaim bookshop, whose bright lights and large storefront sign stand out among smaller and more dimly lit businesses.

The shop has been attacked more than 10 times since it opened a year and a half ago, Samuels said. The latest assault was last week when one of the store’s branches had its locks glued overnight.

Samuels said the shop’s owner met with the Sikrikim several times. The store stocks only religious books, but they include volumes published by Orthodox institutions that are Zionist—anathema to the Sikrikim, who believe a Jewish state can be established only with the coming of the Messiah.

Named after a small Jewish group which 2,000 years ago fought against Roman rulers and suspected Jewish collaborators, the modern-day Sikrikim strike at night and some wear masks to hide their identities.

“They use aggressive tactics and they also ask for protection money which involves paying (a religious inspector) coming in and removing the books he deems unfit,” Samuels said.

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem councilman from the secular Israeli Meretz party, voiced concern that the existence of the Sikrikim, although a tiny minority, signified a growing divide among Jews in Israel.

“Society is becoming increasingly extremist. With the Sikrikim particularly, who are religiously motivated and rule out any position but their own, one cannot reckon, only fight them,” Margalit said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 7.7 million population. With an average of eight children per family, they are a fast-growing population. Many live below the poverty line and keep to dozens of their own towns and neighborhoods.

Mea Shearim area is small, less than half a square mile (1.3 square km), and home to about 30,000 residents considered among the most tight-knit and reclusive of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It takes about a minute to walk from Jerusalem’s city center to Mea Shearim, but the dozens of synagogues and Hassidic courts dotting its narrow alleyways are a world away from the cafes and bars of downtown Jerusalem.

Sikrikim attacks have also been reported at Beit Shemesh, a mixed secular and religious town with a growing ultra-Orthodox community, about half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. The latest target there has been a religious girls’ school.

The Sikrikim who reside near the school object to the way the girls dress. Since the school year began in September they have regularly picketed outside shouting out at the students, most of them younger than 12, that they are promiscuous.

“They claim to be religious but what they do is a crime against God, against the Torah and against humanity,” said David Rotenberg, who works at Or Hachaim.

“SACRILEGE”

Up the road, the Zisalek ice cream parlor has separate entrances for men and women and a sign—posted at the request of local religious authorities—asking them to avoid any show of immodesty by licking cones in public.

“They (the Sikrikim) had a real ball with us,” said Guy Ammar, one of Zisalek’s owners, describing vandalism similar to attacks against other shops in the area.

“But we were not deterred. Residents here told us not to give up and business is going well now.”

Sikrikim shun the media and have made no public comment about their activities.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said an investigation was under way following two complaints lodged by Or Hachaim Center but no suspects have yet been arrested.

Some business owners in Mea Shearim said police has been slow to act, reluctant to get involved in what they see as internal disputes among different religious sects of a closed community.

Rosenfeld said that no other businesses have filed formal complaints in recent weeks.

A few minutes walk from Zisalek Ice Cream is the Greentech music shop, where Hassidic music plays in the background and one DVD in a collection of ultra-Orthodox movies is a suspense film about the battles of a rabbi against Christian missionaries.

The Sikrikim “do not like anything that changes the character of the shtetl and the way it was a hundred years ago,” a worker in the music store said, using a Yiddish term for the small towns where Eastern European Jews lived before the Holocaust.

Shlomo Kuk, an ultra-Orthodox journalist from Jerusalem, said the Sikrikim shouldn’t be seen as representative of devout Jews known as “haredim.”

“One thing is certain: they may dress like haredim but what they do is utter sacrilege which blackens the name of the entire haredi community,” Kuk said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall