Monday, April 4, 2011

Are haredim dangerous?

Came across an interesting article today.  It started off like this:  "University of Haifa report finds Haredim to pass 1 million by 2030; warns if current demographic trends continue, Israel may cease to exist."

I'm having a hard time with this kind of alarmism.  I am not haredi (ultra-orthodox) myself, but the article left a sour taste in my mouth.  I generally dislike being tossed into a box, but would be considered "religious" in Israel and "orthodox" in Western countries where the typical Ashkenazi categorizations are the most recognized.  In the Sephardi world, Jews are mostly mesorti (traditional) or dati (religious), with some hiloni (secular); the divisions of orthodox, conservative and reform are unfamiliar.

The article is based on a report by Prof. Arnon Soffer, who--in the 80's--was responsible for throwing world Jewry into hysteria over the demographic nightmare of an Arab take-over in Israel because of their high birth rate.  Jews across the religious spectrum took his words seriously and determined to do what they could to increase the Jewish population in Israel, both through aliyah and procreation.

I was in Haifa a couple of months ago, fumbling out of a bus with a baby on my hip and a diaper bag over my shoulder, struggling to pull the stroller out from the baggage hold under the bus.  A sweet savta (grandmother) strolling along in jeans and a sweater, listening to the music in her earphones, stopped to help--and to encourage.

"I'm really proud of you religious people," she said, surprising me.  "If it weren't for you we would be living in an Arab state by now.  You should have more children," she suggested, in the way that only a savta can get away with.

"I have three, bli ayin hara," I replied.

"Have another," she continued with a smile.  "I wish more of the young people in our city would settle down with a family instead of the lifestyle they have.  You datim are making up for them, kol hakavod."

The article is dripping with anti-religious sentiment that, in any other format would be considered discrimination.  Try replacing the word haredi with black or Hispanic and read the article.  Absolutely racist, isn't it?  But somehow it's ok for a university professor to heap trash on Jews who weave their religion into every part of their daily lives.

His report further states that more religious people in Israel "will lead to greater emigration of secular Israelis from the country, further degrading the quality of life in the country."  Does he mean that there won't be as many nightclubs (which in the Tel Aviv area are famous for their 3 a.m. knife-fights as the bars empty)?  Is the Israeli coastline ruined by a few "separate" beaches, where no one is trying to ask for your phone number and your husband isn't trying (possibly unsuccessfully) to keep from staring at the more-than-half-naked women who don't have your postpartum stretch marks?

It's important to remember, as Soffer points out in his report Israel: Demography and Density that only about 8% of the population is haredi.  He uses them as a scare tactic to talk about an eventual religious majority, but the national religious have the same high birth rate and would still greatly outnumber the ultra-orthodox as they do presently.  Even at a million people by 2030, the haredim would still only reach around 10% of the predicted population.  Hardly enough to take over the country with, especially since their numbers are mostly made up of children.

What's really funny is that in the middle of the article you'll find this:

There are two big myths about haredim which I have noticed lead the secular population to rage against them.  They are:

Myth #1:  Haredim don't serve in the military

Here is the website of an infantry group that is exclusively haredi, but not all haredim who serve opt for combat positions.  There are also haredi women who serve in the intelligence units, gathering information and breaking codes.  It is true that many defer their service while learning, but that is an option for any student enrolled in a formal education program.  For example, one of my brothers defered his service for four years while working on his university degree.  There are some haredim who actually want to continue serving but are not called up because they are already married and have children, so the army--by its own rules of compensation based on number of dependents--has to pay them more than the 800 shekels/month (about $220) that it gives to the single 18 year-olds who are serving.

Some Jewish mamas didn't used to like putting these boys in an environment where standard IDF health benefits for their fellow female soldiers include a few free abortions, but are proud of their uniformed sons who serve in special units designed for Torah-observant Jews.  Other initiatives in the religious world include programs in hesder yeshivas (where Torah study and army service is combined in a five-year program), run in cooperation with universities, which incorporate teacher training and allow young men to finish their service with a B.Ed. instead of only war stories.

Myth #2:  Haredim live off of government handouts

Because Israel is somewhat of a socialist country, with public health care and other services offered for its citizens' benefit, there is a child allowance.  According to the National Insurance Institute "The Child Allowance Law was enacted in September 1959 to help parents with the expenses entailed in raising their children."  This is a universal payment extended not only to Jews of all persuasions, but also to Israeli Arabs, Druze and all other citizens.  It is automatically deposited in the bank account of every mother/guardian each month and the same amount is given regardless of your income.  For one child, the allowance 169 shekels (less than $50) and a family with six children receives around 200 shekels/month/child.  Hardly enough to live off of.

Israel also prizes education of all kinds, and awards learning stipends to full-time students.  University students usually receive a higher stipend, especially if they live in what is considered a national priority area.  In the Galilee or Negev, stipends are about 2,500 shekels per month.  When my husband was studying full-time in yeshiva he still worked part-time and I worked some from home, making and selling cloth diapers and organic herbal oils because his stipend was only 1,500 shekels.  Once again, not nearly enough to cover all expenses for a growing family and let the parents sit on their bums.

I'll admit that not all haredim have learned the standard social graces of Western society, but I don't believe that this form of vilification is at all useful or productive.  It was reassuring to see that view echoed in the comments following the article.  I'm content in my colorful cotton skirts over the dark polyester variety and don't mind if my children watch an occasional cartoon at a friend's house.  I'm not here to advocate the haredi lifestyle or canonize them all as saints.  I'd just like to see this quirky and besmirched group--one of our own--cut a little slack in our progressive movements to accept and show tolerance for diverse cultures.  Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b'zeh, all of Israel is responsible one for another (Shavuot 39a).  And when we get involved in smear campaigns against any of our brothers and sisters, we give all of Israel a bad name.


  1. The Author is being very economical with the truth. By arbitrarily creating her own categories of "haredi", "orthodox" and "national religious" she offers the misimpression that these are all tiny minorities, inferring no impact on Israeli society.

    Here's the reality:
    1. All observant sub groups Shayna mentions MUST becomme the Jewish majority in the Jewish State, simply because all such groups produce children at 3-5 times the rate of secular Israeli Jews, who reproduce at typical European rates of 2+ per household.

    2. In additional to child allowance, the political parties tied to all these groups brazenly demand blatant payoffs from public funds to join each coalition government. So they are in fact a drain on the society.

    3. You may argue that we need all these future Jewish babies to offset all the future arab babies, but what will we be left with? A failed state that has lost its vibrant, progressive moderate center which shoulders the entire economy. Instead we'll have a stagnant state of extremist, very fertile Arabs and Jews with no capacity to compete in the new global business economy, but ever more mouths for the state to feed.

    The future is not bright for Eretz Yisrael.

    A S Prisant/Prism Ltd

  2. Well said, Shayna. Unfortuately, the phenomenon you describe has been going on for years, no - decades -- before the inception of the State. Hopefully it is blogs like this one that can help ereadicate some of this deep-seated prejudice. Thanks!

  3. Fabulous post !!! I Suggest that you submit it to the Jerusalem Post as an OP-ED article.

  4. well said
    compubear, monsey ir hakodesh to rbs, dec '10

  5. Thank you all for your feedback! I apologize for causing any misimpressions. To clarify: yes, the many sub-groups (which are not my own, they existed well before I) do already constitute a combined majority of Israel's Jewish population. However, Soffer expresses his concern over the haredim, since the less extreme religious groups have always been integrated into the public workforce, school systems, army, etc.--even before the initiatives mentioned above were introduced. What I meant to convey is that haredim are a minority even among the religious population and look to remain as such in the future.

    Child allowance is given to rich and poor, religious and secular, and everyone in between. Coalition payoffs are demanded by EVERY political party that is joining. These two things are in no way unique to haredim.

    We never can know what the future will hold. But I'd like to think that if we keep working for, praying for, hoping for the best--and loving each other--then G-d will make sure that Israel doesn't "cease to exist."

  6. Shayna

    Your sentiments are lovely, and in part valid. However, I would like to take some exception to a part of what you say. A fairly large segment of Haredim are strongly anti Hiloni and Masorti, especially as it relates to the Ashkenaz community. They are disrespectful of their beliefs and even go so far as to say they are not Jewish, but a different sect, like the Samaritans and the Karaites. It is hard for someone who is Masorti or Hiloni or Reform to respect someone whose opinion is such as to deny them their rights as a Jew.

    For what it is opinion. In contrast to those who say that if you are not dati, you are not really Jewish.

  7. Hi Jonatan, thanks for your thoughts.

    It is a shame that prejudice exists among every group of people. Look at America, 60 years ago, when an embarrassing amount of the white population denied African-Americans their rights as human beings. But we're all making progress. And my desire when writing this was to show that Jews/Israelis are also making progress and not heading toward our own destruction.

    Also, in my own life, I'm trying to get away from the whole "us and them" thing. I decided a while back that when I have a problem with a group of people, I should try to befriend a couple of them so that I can first get to know them as individuals and later start to understand their society and culture. So far it's working for me...

  8. Dear Shayna,

    Very interesting article on a tricky topic. I think one of your best insights here is what you mentioned in the comment section: that when we have problems with a group of people, it's best to become friends with a few of them, to understand their perspectives, etc.

    Perhaps then we can offer viable solutions/alternatives for what we consider to be problematic behavior. That group may find this more productive and helpful than blanket criticism.


  9. Oh, and I'm honored to serve as an example in your post!