Significant demographic growth, the influence of consumer culture, and the weakening of the welfare state in Israel are pushing the Haredi population toward integration into the labor market and into higher education, but not necessarily toward social and cultural integration. This integration carries a new challenge for both the Haredim and the general Israeli society: building a public sphere that enables the Haredim to preserve their way of life but makes no demand on the general society to surrender what it considers to be fundamental values.
For the most part, since the founding of the state, the Haredi sector has struggled to safeguard its particularistic concerns, mainly deferment from military enlistment for males and generous support for the families of yeshiva students. In contrast to the Religious Zionist sector, the Haredi sector did not express an interest in integrating into general Israeli society and state institutions, with the exception of the Knesset, where it acted to ensure state benefits for its community and increase them whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The Likud’s rise to governing power in 1977 and the willingness of Menahem Begin to grant the Haredi sector practically all its demands, among them: a fourfold increase in child allowances; a threefold increase in subsidies for yeshivot; grounding all El Al flights on the Sabbath, removal of quotas and restrictions on the number of yeshiva students granted deferments from military service, and granting such deferments on the basis of declaration alone. This greatly improved economic conditions in the Haredi sector, and greatly weakened its already low motivation, to join the workforce and the general Israeli society.
In recent years, a new trend has begun to emerge, albeit one not shared by the entire Haredi sector: an ambition to start a process of integration into Israel society and into state institutions without giving up one’s unique Haredi lifestyle, including strict gender separation. This trend expresses to two parallel interacting processes, one of them economic and the other social.
The economic change underway appears to stem from a values shift among Haredi youth. Although young Haredim are light-years from the materialism that characterizes large swaths of Israeli society, they have not remained neutral in the face of Israel’s rapidly-rising standard of living. An indication of this is the trend toward lower Haredi birthrates, which may reflects a greater reluctance to be content with a minimal standard of living.
The social change is deeper, and harder to track. An as-yet-untested and unsupported hypothesis is that Haredi life has been affected to no small degree by cellular phones and the internet. Should these trends continue, and no drastic change occur, the sector’s exposure to external influences will increase. Both of these processes combine with the demographic factor. In recent years Haredi society has been transformed from a small, ascetically oriented elite society into a kind of mass society composed largely of ordinary people with ordinary aspirations.