Haredi society in Israel is slowly changing
Haredi society in Israel is slowly changing

One of the major societal shifts here in Israel is changing attitudes and behavior of the haredi community towards taking a more inclusive role in Israeli society. On the surface, and certainly in the statements of the haredi political and rabbinic leadership, no such change is really noticeable. Every attempt to reform or change the educational structure and curriculum of its school systems is met with fierce opposition, and just recently the new law mandating the teaching of a core curriculum of English, math, science, history and language in the haredi school systems was repealed as part of the coalition government agreement of which the haredim are a core component.

Yet, beneath the surface things are certainly changing in that community. Though the number is relatively still quite small, more and more haredim are entering the Israel Defense Forces by various means and special units. The fierce opposition reflected in extreme social ostracism of those who join the IDF is paradoxically a sign that more and more young haredim are considering army service and having the subsequent ability to work legally as a realistic option. The success of the Nachal haredi program that has integrated thousands of young men into the army, as well as looking out for their welfare after army service, is now a well-established fact in Israeli society.

The fact that this type of army service, which has been highly successful in the eyes of the army itself, has not impinged on the religious observance of those involved in this program has not been lost on many of the youth in haredi society. The number of battalions involved in the Nachal haredi program continues to increase and there are now more options than ever present regarding the type of army service available to haredi youth. This is affecting a slow, unpublicized and even surreptitious change in the haredi community.

There recently appeared in a major Israeli newspaper an article written by Binyamin Braun of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the future of Israeli society and its haredi component fifty years from now. Of course, predicting the future of Israel or of any country or society a half-century in advance is quite risky and is probably more conjecture than science. Nevertheless, Braun has standing in the academic and haredi world due to his scholarly and highly definitive biography of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (Chazon Ish) published a number of years ago. He is an “insider” so to speak in the haredi world and thus his assessments and observations bear study and consideration.

He envisions a slow but steady, almost inexorable, integration of haredi society in all branches and facets of the country. He is bold enough to predict that haredi society will play a leading role, perhaps even the leading role in the future of the State of Israel and its cultural and societal development. He bases this seemingly fantastic prediction on the changes that he witnesses in the current haredi society, and on the realization of the general Israeli public and the haredi society itself of its growing numbers and its financial and social needs. More and more haredim will enter the workforce at all levels and haredi political power will continue to expand and grow.

The demographics are certainly on the side of the growing power of the haredi community. Yet, it is disheartening that so few in the haredi community are willing to take the leap forward and volunteer to serve for National Service duty. People are not willing as of yet to translate what they instinctively know that they have to do into action and behavior. And there is no rabbinic leadership willing or able to publicly push them along the necessary path to normalcy.

But Braun also makes the clear point that the current haredi leadership policies are basically unsustainable. The grinding poverty that afflicts much of the haredi population here in Israel is forcing more and more haredim to search for a better system and a better life for themselves and their families. A life of begging and dependence, desperate borrowing and intolerable living conditions certainly is no longer attractive to the vast majority of the haredi community.

And therefore the slow change in values and lifestyle in that community has already begun. It is especially noticeable amongst the female population. haredi women now appear in all levels of Israeli society. They are visible in all areas of the Israeli workforce – in government offices, banks, hospitals and medical centers, computer and high-tech firms, schools and specialized education, etc. – and the objections and prejudices from within and without their community have pretty much dissipated over the past number of years. There are now a number of universities that cater to a haredi women’s population, one of which is headed by the daughter of the late great Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. All of this signifies the slow but great change that haredi society is experiencing currently.

Yet, the struggle within the haredi community is currently still a fierce and bitter one. Those schools that allow for a secular studies curriculum to be included in their school day are vilified, banned and subject to constant verbal and sometimes even physical harassment. There are many conflicting personal, financial, political and social interests involved in this struggle. Vested interests still dominate the community. The conflict has its antecedents in nineteenth century Jewish Europe and in the “Old Yishuv” years here in the Land of Israel.

Since it is in the nature of Jews to never abandon all quarrels, even though the situations and environment have changed drastically from the times of the original quarrel, it is more than likely that this issue will remain contentious and contested for the immediate future. However, the changing circumstances and environment will undoubtedly affect changes in the attitude and behavior of haredi society regarding this and other issues. Part of the problem is that religious Jewry has painted a falsely idyllic picture for itself of life in Eastern Europe during the centuries preceding World War II.

One of the major obstacles to the continued growth and success of the haredi community is its refusal to learn the lessons of history from its past. Nevertheless, current realities impinge on all of us, and what we do not wisely do on a voluntary basis we are forced to do eventually because of the pressures of time and circumstance.

According to Braun, the Israeli haredi community will eventually come to resemble its counterpart in American Jewish life. It is a slow process fraught with the ups and downs of any major change in the mindset of the community. However, the process has slowly begun and will gain momentum and acceptance over time. The very vehemence of the objection mounted in sections of the haredi community here in Israel testifies to the fact that there is a recognition that the process of change is entrenching itself in that community.

There is no question that this process of change is a wrenching one. Whether or not it can or should be helped along by outside forces, political, social or legislative, is certainly a matter for debate. The change eventually must occur from the inside of the community and not solely because of outside pressures and laws. Just as it is difficult if not well nigh impossible to legislate morality, so too is unlikely that true change will be achieved through coercion and legislation.

So the law regarding the educational curriculum in haredi schools has been repealed. But the idea and forces that gave birth to the passage of that law originally are still present and very active. Only time will tell as to how this matter will eventually play out in the future. But all of history teaches us that change is an inevitable part of human existence and the story of human civilization.