JERUSALEM — In Israel they are known as people who are “in awe” of the Holy One Blessed Be He. The Hebrew name for that category of ultra-Orthodox Jews is Haredim.
Most of them live in homogeneous religious communities like the Mea She’arim quarter of Jerusalem or the Bnai Brak suburb of Tel Aviv.
The majorities are either non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. Their young men and women do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Their children and teenagers do not attend state-run schools, and their manner of dress conforms to the restrictions specified in the Torah and its rabbinical commentaries.
They stirred nationwide controversy earlier this year by insisting on sexual segregation aboard urban and inter-urban buses — that males should sit in the front and females in the rear.
This campaign came to a head when an exceptionally brave young woman by the name of Tanya Rosenblitt refused to comply with a Haredi passenger’s insistence that she not sit in the front rows where he and his co-religionists were sitting.
As soon as the Israeli news media heard about the half-hour long showdown, during which the bus driver could not close the vehicle’s doors, Tanya became the Rosa Parks of Israel, emulating the black civil rights advocate who in 1955 stood up for her right to sit wherever she wished and not where the racists wanted her to sit.
This latest incident turned on a red light in Israel. It made people here realize that the Haredim, with the help of local bus cooperatives, was undermining their free and open society in which racial and religious discrimination did not exist, who were willing to let them have their way.
In truth, Israel’s Haredim are an anomaly if only because they have been able to win far-reaching concessions from the country’s secular majority.
Because of their formation of separate political parties whose parliamentary votes are useful and often essential to create coalition governments, successive prime ministers have given in to their demands.
For example, their separate network of Haredi schools is funded mainly by monetary allocations obtained from the respective governments, most of whose supporters are secular or relatively moderate insofar as religious issues are concerned.
The result is that the Haredi educational network has been expanding steadily for the past half century. Considering the fact that the Haredi birth rate is double or triple that of the secular Israelis, graduates of these schools constitute an ever-more outspoken and prominent component of Israel’s body politic.
Their neighborhoods are off limits to private automobiles, taxis and all other vehicles for the duration of the Sabbath — from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The buildings, lampposts and storefronts bear signs in Hebrew and English, the latter text of which read, “Please pass through our communities in modest dress.” Women are the prime targets of these admonitions and are subject to indignities if they disregard them.
At the political level, the demographic consequences of their natural increase are a cause of serious concern to the secular population. According to the latest calculation, one-third of Israel’s Jews will be Haredim by 2050. If this forecast materializes, the Jewish state’s national priorities will be much different than they are today.
It is conceivable that a Haredi takeover will weaken if not eliminate Israel’s ability to defend herself against her external enemies.
One way to prevent such a situation would be for more non-Haredi Jews to settle in Israel during the next four decades. These could include a substantial number of Zionists from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and France as well as counterparts from the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus. Such a goal will not be easy to achieve, however, inasmuch as the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate here not only has exclusive authority over marriage and divorce, but also over conversions to Judaism and new immigrants’ status as being Jews under Israeli (as well as ultra-Orthodox religious) law.
In short, secular Israelis have let political expediency turn the local Haredim into a major problem that could be modified if not eliminated only if the government reduces the excessive public funding that they enjoy.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at Jay@actcom.co.il.)