Integrate Haredi Jews with secular society


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A group of Haredi Jewish people hold a demonstration on Wall Street in opposition to the Israeli draft law in 2014.

By Josh Beylinson, For The Pitt News

Israel is a nation bordered by its enemies, so it makes sense for enrollment in the military to be mandatory for two to three years for most of the adult population. Despite this, a segment of able-bodied citizens doesn’t contribute to society in the way many other Israelis must in order for the nation to defend itself against outside threats.

These Israelis, known as Haredi Jews, are exempt from the military draft and instead study the Torah inside isolated communities. Military service is where Jews of various backgrounds come together and bond and it’s linked to the strong sense of community present in Israel. Haredi Jews do not take part in this coming-of-age custom and this contributes significantly to the social divide between Haredi and non-Haredi Jews.

If Israel is to survive in the future, the burden of military enlistment must be shared equally among the population. The Haredim must integrate with mainstream Israeli society soon, or else Israel will become a country of two divided Jewish demographics unable to work together for the common good of the nation.

Haredi Jews are an extremely devout portion of the Jewish population. The community is infamous for its black suits, fur shtreimels, or hats, and complete devotion to Torah study. Since the Torah is the holy book of Judaism and the source from which Judaism is derived, Haredi Jews see their erudition as a source of pride.

This group first received its privileged status in 1948 when a few hundred students were exempt from military service in order to rebuild the vast base of religious texts and knowledge destroyed during the Holocaust. Back then, Haredi Jews made up a tiny segment of the Israeli population.

Now the situation has grown out of control.

A report issued by the Israeli Democracy Institution in 2014 states that Haredi Jews number about one million within Israel, or about 12 percent of the total population. Haredi Jews are the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish demographic in Israel, have a massive youth population and are predicted to make up one third of the Israeli population by 2065 due to an especially high birth rate.

Currently, about one in four 18-year-olds will avoid military service by joining a yeshiva, which is where the Haredim go to study the Torah. That means the hundreds of thousands more Israelis of that age will not enlist if current population trends persist by 2065. This would severely limit Israel’s ability to defend itself in the future.

A law currently being proposed in the Knesset, Israel’s general assembly, would force many Haredim to enlist once they turn 18, but once adults Haredi are unsuited for military life due to their long isolation in religious communities.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 report on International Religious Freedom, one quarter of Israeli students do not study general topics such as science, English and mathematics due to the fact that the Israeli government allows the Haredim to educate their own children. This isolates Haredi children from other Jews in Israel and contributes to the separation that the non-Haredi and Haredi feel toward each other. Along with this, the poor quality of secular education makes the Haredi unfit for the workplace, which is why so many Haredi end up studying at a yeshiva.

While Haredi men normally don’t work, women in the community are the traditional breadwinners who work to sustain the yeshiva scholars — the men — in their family. This is the reason why labor participation rates hover around 50 percent for Haredi Jewish men, which is still an abysmal number considering that the unemployment rate in Israel is 4.2 percent for people seeking employment.

In order for all the Haredim to enter the labor force, the community members have to be educated in a modern sense and must also venture outside their secluded religious communities to experience secular Israeli society. An integration of Jewish society in Israel must happen and it must happen within the next decade or two.

To integrate Haredi Jews into secular society, Haredi schools that don’t meet the general education requirements of Israeli public schools must close down and have their students sent to public schools where they can experience life outside of their communities and talk to non-Haredi children. These children will grow up feeling more included in Israeli society and be educated in non-secular subjects. Once this is done, Haredi will feel inclined to join the military with the rest of their peers and after military service will be more likely to join the labor force.

Once this is implemented, the Israeli government can then pass laws that would restrict the amount of students that may study at a yeshiva. Also, the Knesset should then pass a law that would have the people that won’t study serve in the military in a combatant or noncombatant role, or serve the government through an organization such as the civilian service program — likely an attractive option for members of the Haredi community.

Increased integration with Israeli society is linked with increased enlistment numbers, which is seen in the fact that enlistment numbers jumped from 288 in 2007 to 2,300 in 2015, a time period when many Haredi Jews gained employment because of reduced government welfare.

Haredi Jews will claim that the true spirit of Judaism is constant studying of the Torah, just like the Jews of old. Their argument against military service and labor participation is based on this view of Jewish history. However, this notion of Judaism is simply not true.

Only a small minority of Jews in the past were able to dedicate their lives to studying the Torah, while the rest of the Jewish population were farmers, doctors, bankers and artisans, along with a host of other professions. If that weren’t the case, Jewish communities wouldn’t be able to support themselves. Integrating the Haredim into modern society would be truer to the spirit of Judaism than widespread and constant study of the Torah.

Hopefully, with increased contact and integration into the outside world, many young Haredi Jews will choose to leave their strict communities and join modern Israeli society, reducing the amount of Haredim in Israel, increasing the size of the labor force to supply a growing Israeli economy and ensuring a safe Israel through a larger military.

Jews must adapt to the current world if we are to live on, not cluster and isolate ourselves in religious communities which reject all forms of modernization. One can only hope that the Haredim realize this before it’s too late.

Write to Josh at [email protected].