Are ultra-Orthodox Israelis trending towards modernism?

August 26, 2016

To the unknowing viewer, Israel’s Ultra Orthodox (Haredim) population is trending decidedly away from modernism. Walking past women in the streets of Jerusalem, Haredi men ostentatiously avert their eyes to prevent immodest gazing at passersby. Few learn English, and even fewer learn the most basic subjects needed to survive outside of their communities. Earlier this month, the Knesset rejected an amendment sponsored by the Yesh Atid party that would have required Haredi schools receiving state funding to provide 11 hours of math, English, and science for students. These basic subjectsthe “Core Curriculum” are widely criticized by Haredim who wish not to be forced by the State towards modernism; preferring instead a strict life of Torah, untouched by external influences. Rabbi Dov Habertal, a Haredi orthodox lawyer and journalist, says that secular education “changes the DNA of the Haredi personality and “destroys religious life and the history of the Jewish people”.

Israelis place a high value on protecting pluralism, which is precisely why the Jewish state divides its schools into several sectors: state schools for the majority of pupils, Arab and Druze schools, state religious schools for modern orthodox students, and independent schools for other religious and international groups. Haredim largely populate the “independent schools” so as to keep and pass on their observances and traditions despite living in a multi-cultural environment. This pluralism lies at the very heart of Israeli democracy and allows multiple entities within the state to express their beliefs and independence.

But, just as a segment of society benefits from pluralism, so must it extend the same ethos of understanding and acceptance to others. And, in the case of the Haredim, many Israelis wonder if these communities are doing their fair share for the economy and building the country. Are they entitled to state-funded education or exempt from basic education laws? How will Haredi families continue to support themselves if they lack the basic education necessary to be a part of the workforce? Moreover, how might this impact Israeli society and the economy as a whole?

Some Haredi social activists say they are entitled to state-funded basic education within the context of their independent schools. They say that they should have a choice to include coursework that will allow their children to succeed in a modern society while also protecting their religious ideals. They decry the recent annulment of the Core Curriculum and criticize its naysayers as fearful and controlling. Tali Farkash, a Haredi journalist, said, “In the beginning of the State of Israel, there was basic education for Haredim and it did not undermine our community. Rabbi Dov Habertal himself is proof of this. He is a scholar Haredi man working within the modern community, but he doesn’t want to give others tools to do the same?” Farkash called Rabbi Habertal hypocritical and sexist, as he “believes women should not have opinions”, and refused to speak in the same room as he. “It’s all about fear and power”, she said. “He doesn’t want an educated Haredi society because that would create competition for himself. Our politicians comply because they want to keep their coalition in good shape. It is not in their interest to fight with allied [Haredi] parties”. 

It doesn’t help that many Haredim, most of whom live in closed communities where conformity is expected, are afraid to speak up against the repeal. Farkash maintained that those who want this basic education want to avoid being seen as “going against their society”. Privately, she says, many people come to her saying they wish things were different. Farkash has launched a petition calling on Israel’s education minister to ensure that core subjects are offered in some Haredi educational institutions. “There are only five institutions that fit our Haredi lifestyle and teach proper education- and they come at a premium price.” She explained that her masters program costs less than her son’s school that teaches both Torah and formal, albeit low level, education. “It’s not fair to say that people do not want this type of education. There are many who want a public solution for their children’s formal education.

If Haredim are to continue towards modernism and integration into the workplace, education will certainly be the key. “Without formal education, one cannot get a proper salary, cannot go to university, and cannot provide for one’s own family”, said Farkash. Indeed, the Haredi sector in Israel represents around ten percent of the population- a great proportion of Israel’s workforce that would be considered largely unqualified if no core curriculum were taught. Of the business owners and employers who do not employ Haredim, 25 percent said they lack the education and relevant skills needed to do the job.

Other social activists say Haredim work under the radar, are not as rare as suggested, and are certainly growing. “The Israeli ultra-Orthodox community is changing”, wrote Racheli Ibenboim, a self-proclaimed ultra-Orthodox feminist. “A new generation of Haredi social activists is slowly emerging, inspired not only by the beauty of Jewish tradition, but also by values of individualism and equality. Haredi feminism is part of this trend, which also embraces integrating Haredi men into the Israeli workforce and society,” she explained. We may just hold the key to the future of Israeli society”.

The data suggest Ibenboim may be right. Israel’s Economy Ministry says that the working Haredi population has doubled in the last several years; from 8 percent of Israel’s workforce in 2008 to 16 percent of workers in 2015. And that’s not all she’s right about: feminist forces will likely lead a Haredi trend towards modernity. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Haredi women are doing quite well in the employment sect compared to Haredi men. Seventy percent of ultra-Orthodox women are employed, compared to 80 percent of the non-Haredi female population. But for men, only 56 percent of Haredim are employed while the average for non-Haredi men is a whopping 90 percent. Thus, change will likely be led by Haredi women like Farkash and Ibenboim, the latter declaring, “my colleagues and I are paving a critical path for Israeli society. The Haredi communities aren’t going away. If Israel is to survive, then we all need to find a way to enable us to participate in Israeli society.”

Still, Ibenboim admits that it may be a stretch to say the Haredi community is moving towards modernism. Although she maintains that “there are more and more people like me in the Haredi world,” Ibenboim acknowledges that “the gaps between the isolationist Haredi worldview and modern society get bigger and bigger.” The institution of programs like the Core Curriculum will not be an automatic push towards modernism. Even with basic education, it will be ultimately up to the individuals to decide what kind of life they choose to live. But one thing is for certain, says Tali Farkash- the Core Curriculum will offer something many Haredim currently lack: a choice.

Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” and “Israel Girl” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Print Issue: Breaking Barriers | May 17, 2024

In their new book, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew,” Emmanuel Acho and Noa Tishby bring their vastly different perspectives to examine the complex subject of antisemitism in America today.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.