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.