How the ultra-orthodox are creating fissures in Israeli society
The social and political tumult that Israel has been enduring since last November’s general election has many aspects, all of which have exposed some deep divisions within Israeli society that have been airbrushed over for many years. However, no social cleavage is more fervent and incendiary as that between the ultra-orthodox and, mainly but not exclusively, the country’s secular-agnostic Jews. Earlier this week the Knesset passed the annual budget bill, which will only exacerbate this deep and destructive social-political source of polarization whose roots run deep and go back to the early days of Zionism and the aftermath of the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
In the new budget, $3.78 billion has been allocated to increased support for ultra-orthodox institutions and programs. These are discretionary funds that will be spent on increasing stipends at religious yeshiva student institutions or as an allowance for a food voucher program and many other religious initiatives. In the 21st week of the protests against the government, the theme at the moment is less about the judicial overhaul but more about opposition to this daylight robbery of the public coffers.
As much as the leaders of both ultra-orthodox parties represented in the coalition government — United Torah Judaism and Shas, the Ashkenazi and Sephardi parties respectively — disingenuously would like to portray the criticism of this budgetary increase as anti-religious or even antisemitic, the protest is about good governance, accountability in government, fairness and the future of the country. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, which is badly hurting many families, ultra-orthodox education, constructing religious buildings and supporting Haredi Jewish culture and identity are all enjoying a bonanza that others lacking access to political power can only dream of.
With the exception of a few mindless and obviously regrettable comments that crossed the line by attacking religion itself and besmearing the entire ultra-orthodox population, the objection is about unscrupulous politicians blackmailing a prime minister who is using the state budget as if it were his private bank account to pay them off to stay in power while he stands trial.
To begin with, the discretionary nature of these funds clearly invites corrupt practices in their distribution, with hardly any oversight by the state. In many cases the recipients of these funds are non-supervised educational institutions that do not teach core subjects such as maths, science and foreign languages, resulting in an education that is irrelevant to a modern society and its economy, deprives its students of the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and in many cases condemns them and their families to a life of poverty.
Figures don’t lie. Only half of ultra-orthodox men are in employment, and while 80 percent of women in their communities may be active in the labor market, most of them work part-time and earn a minimum wage, which perpetuates poverty within their community. This harms the economy as much as it hurts these people and their families. Currently the ultra-orthodox comprise 13.5 percent of the Israeli population and are the country’s fastest-growing population group, with a growth rate of 4 percent, yet they contribute a mere 1 percent of the country’s income tax revenue, while the contribution of non-ultra-orthodox households to the country’s gross domestic product is nine times larger than that of Haredi households.
The ultra-orthodox’s tiny contribution and its refusal to serve in the military have caused widespread resentment.
During a recent visit to Jerusalem, I walked through the stronghold of the Haredi community in the city, the Mea Shearim neighborhood, one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem outside of the Old City. Poverty and underdevelopment were apparent at every corner, but so also was the defiant insistence on distinguishing themselves from the rest of the Israeli population, while relying on that population for their livelihood and security.
A major issue of contention for most Israelis is that only 9 percent of ultra-orthodox youth serve in the army, in a country where service is compulsory — 32 months for men and 24 months for women, not to mention annual reserve service after they have completed their service. In a country where military service is a value and a duty, and is also regarded as a social equalizer that creates networks for life, the refusal of most ultra-orthodox to serve, which has become a condition set by their representatives in the coalition to remain in government and thus prop up Netanyahu’s administration, is probably the most infuriating and offensive issue for the majority of Israel’s Jews.
It is the ultra-orthodox’s tiny contribution to the modern society that is Israel, their demand for big budgets from the public purse to maintain their lifestyle, and their refusal to serve in the military, that has caused such deep and widespread resentment. It might also be the case that the long collective memory of Israel’s Zionists holds a grudge against the ultra-orthodox because their rabbis opposed the very idea of Zionism, of the revival of Jewish self-determination in the ancient land, yet at the same time in today’s Israel, which is the very product of Zionism, they enjoy political power and the fruits granted by the state while making almost no contribution to it.
The finger must not be pointed at religion, or even at the ordinary devoted Haredim, but at their leaders, who for the sake of maintaining their political power are ready to deprive them of a proper education, and with it social mobility and prosperity. Instead, they rely on a network of charities and handouts that creates a vicious cycle of dependency on their representatives in the Knesset, and poverty.
A letter signed by 280 senior Israeli economists encapsulated the danger in the budget bill, which “would result in significant and long-term damage to Israel’s economy and its future as a prosperous country.” However, the issue is not only about the economy per se but the very character of the state, hence it has become emotive, creating and harboring mutual anger and scorn that becomes difficult to bridge.
As the Haredi community expands, and with that their political representation and influence on decision-making, but without fulfilling their part of the social contract that allows societies to exist and prosper, malaise among those who pay taxes and serve in the military is becoming detrimental to the existence of the state. Some of these disenchanted might either leave the country in significant numbers, or refuse to shoulder all the responsibilities, seeing the current situation as increasingly unfair.
At this crucial watershed in Israel’s history, the behavior of the current government and the greed of some of its members who want to have it all, and have it now, poses a greater danger to the survival of the Jewish state than any number of external threats.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.