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“The Haredi Challenge”


The debate over changing the pattern of the relationship between the Haredi community and the rest of Israeli society is essentially one about three challenges: economic integration, equality in sharing the security burden, and cultural influence. There are reciprocal relationships among these challenges, sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting. In order to determine which course should be taken, we must first determine which of the challenges it is more important and imperative to overcome, and which have lesser priority. And more: we need to identify what kind of social fabric is likely to emerge from such intervention. In other words, what should the Haredi community’s relationship with other sectors of society to look like? Such a determination will enable decision makers to choose among four possible courses of action in dealing with the Haredi challenge, with each having advantages and disadvantages over the short term and the long term:

Four Patterns of Intervention Advantages Disadvantages
Integration of the Haredim by coercion

Full rights, Full duties
Removes the Haredi challenge from the agenda and allows the integration of a new, high-level population into the Israeli mainstream. Difficult to implement and liable to lead to active resistance, segregation, radicalization, and ultimately an intensification of the Haredi challenge.

Liable to raise moral concerns.
Social segregation of the Haredim

No rights, no duties
Does not require coercing the Haredi community.

Is likely to raise the level of awareness among Haredim about the need for partnership relations with the rest of the population.
Full isolation of the Haredi sector could lead to radicalization.

A cut-off of state resources would lead to poverty and distress.

The state would lose the benefits brought by the addition of a human resource to the circle of productivity.
Haredi economic integration only

Full rights, no duties
Deals with the central challenge – the economic burden – without the need for bitter struggles.

The Haredim would accept change that does not impose the requirement of army service and that does not endanger their cultural separation.
No equal sharing of the security burden.

The Haredim continue to gain numerical and political power – in addition to economic autonomy – ahead of another possible struggle over rights and influence.
Balanced integration by mutual consent

Partial rights, partial duties
Full economic integration and full duties and rights.
A sense of “unity” that is likely to radiate positively on the tone of the public discourse. Cross pollination as is often found when cultures merge.
Increases in the number of areas with a high potential for friction.

Difficult in overcoming mutual suspicions and in charting a path towards incremental integration.

Leaves the long-term Haredi challenge unresolved.



The question of the future of Haredi society and, even more, the question of the integration of Haredim into general Israeli society occupies Israel’s political leadership and has been at the center of the political agenda for many months. A variety of circumstances – economic (the budgetary load), legal (the court nullification of the Tal Law), and social (the social protest) – have increased the likelihood that this issue will not soon be removed from the agenda and will require that political leaders decide the issues that are causing deep disagreement between various sectors of society – a disagreement that is also liable to lead to political and social crises that will be complicated to deal with.

In the following paper, which is partially based on previous Jewish People Policy Institute publications – foremost among these, a paper of recommendations prepared for the JAFI Task Force on the Haredim – we will present a number of central questions that lie at the heart of the dispute, and propose a number of guidelines for policy-making. We should point out at this early stage, that this paper is far less extensive than other work on the subject including, recently, by the commission headed by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima). Moreover, this paper does not pretend to propose an additional course of action beyond those that have been laid on the table, formally or less formally, in recent years (including those known as the Plesner “Plan”, the Yaalon Plan, the Lapid Plan, the Netanyahu-Kandel Plan, the Elazar Stern Plan, etc., and those proposed in detail by institutions and organizations such as the Neaman Institute and the Israeli Democracy Institute). What is unique about this paper, in fact, is not its length, but its brevity: it seeks to focus on the core questions that must be decided before a detailed action plan can be proposed. This reflects our sense that, in some cases, the political establishment has a tendency to lay out plans for action before the plan’s goals have been sufficiently articulated.

How the Majority Defines the Problem

In light of the Haredim’s demographic growth, the time is approaching when general Israeli society must decide on a new model for the relationship between the non-Haredi majority and the “strengthening minority” of Haredim. In order to determine why an updated model is necessary, it is worth first defining the nature of the challenge posed by the current model. Haredi society contributes much to the cultural-social climate of Israel through those who study Torah, and is conspicuous in its acts of giving and charity on behalf of weaker individuals and groups. It appears that there is an interest among the Haredim in continued political integration and involvement in public affairs, and to a certain degree, also in partial economic integration – though all this while avoiding cultural and social integration into general Israeli society.Under these circumstances, the Haredim essentially pose a challenge to the rest of society that is essentially three separate challenges, the reciprocal relations between which are often misleading: the first is economic in nature; the second is civil, and the third cultural.

  1. The Haredi community’s low contribution to the economy. The Haredi community consumes resources from the state (like other sectors, and even more) but its contribution to the country’s economic prosperity is very low for many reasons, foremost of which are: avoidance of work in favor of yeshiva study; education and training that do not enable their integration in the modern technological professions that are required for the country’s economic prosperity; the social difficulties involved in integrating into work places where there are also non-Haredim, etc. Israel has a clear interest in expanding the Haredi sector’s occupational integration, and thereby both increasing its standard of living (and reducing its level of dependence on assistance budgets) and improving the level of its contribution to the economic development of Israel as a whole.
  2. The Absence of “Equal Burden-Sharing”: The Haredim, for historical reasons and because of their political power, enjoy a sweeping exemption from military service. In their view, they contribute their part to the defense of the country by learning Torah. However, most of the Israeli public does not share this view and equates the Haredi position with “draft evasion”. The exemption from military service is one of the causes of the economic problem (detailed in the previous paragraph) since it is the main catalyst in the Haredim’s choice of a yeshiva life over a working life (if they choose work they become subject to the draft). But it also presents a separate “problem”: general society expects all citizens who belong to it to shoulder the heavy burden of defending the country’s security, and a sweeping sectoral exemption for the Haredim weakens the basis for requiring other sectors to serve. In addition, as the Haredi sector’s numerical strength increases, so does the importance of the exemption as a factor that makes it more difficult for the IDF to draft the manpower it needs to reach its required force strength.
  3. Haredi Religious Coercion on Various Matters: Haredi society, whose numerical power is increasing and which makes effective use of political power to maximize its influence on issues that its leaders consider critical, has a tendency towards sectoral segregation – but at the same time, it has a desire to subject Israeli society to rules of conduct that are convenient to the Haredim on matters of importance to them. In effect, to subject various frameworks to standards that suit Haredi culture rather than that of the majority. So it is, for example, in the demand for separation between men and women on public transportation routes that the Haredim use. So it is, too, in the application of strict conversion rules by the Haredi dayanim (religious court judges) who are employed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. So it is in radical gender segregation and “modesty” requirements at the Western Wall – among others.

How the Haredi Minority Defines the Problem

From the Haredi point of view, the tension between general society and the Haredi world does not seem unbridgeable. As the Haredim see it, the essence of the general society’s criticism is not about Haredi society’s values, but rather about the low contribution made to the economy and the country’s security and to its desire to impose certain patterns of behavior on the general public. At the same time, as the Haredim see it, the general public also needs to understand that the world of the yeshivot contributes to strengthening the identity, vitality, cultural richness and uniqueness of the renascent Jewish state. It has turned modern Israel into a Torah learning power.

Even so, the demands made by the general society shake the foundations of the Haredi world in three main ways:

  1. The Economic Dilemma: With the decline of financial support from the parents’ families – of reparations from Germany and welfare allowances from the state – young Haredim are becoming the world’s poorest Jewish population. In Israel, one in every three Jewish children enrolled in first grade studies in one of the Haredi school systems, and most of them live below the poverty line. Haredi society finds itself between a rock and a hard place, between occupational integration in the general community that would endanger its cultural uniqueness, and the poverty that would endanger its continued existence. If the Israeli establishment and the Haredi leadership do not find solutions that answer the need to combine economic wellbeing with the preservation of the Haredim’s unique social fabric, Haredi society is liable to collapse, economically or socially. The question is not “whether” it is possible for them to integrate occupationally and economically, since over the long term there is no alternative, but “how to accomplish this” without losing the cultural uniqueness and the adherence to the goals that characterize the Torah world.
  2. Challenging a model that has proven itself: In the last 60 years, Haredi society has created a kind of cultural and social enclave that has enabled it to deal with the political reality within which they function as a minority “in exile” within a Jewish state. With great effort, they arrived at a model that has proven its efficiency. Under its cover, the Haredi community has grown from a small group of 50,000 in 1948 to one of 850,000 today. The model is built on the foundation of a five-word formula: “Social segregation and cultural fortification.” The Haredim believe that this formula also ensured the survival of the Jewish people during 2,000 years of exile. In any case, the Haredi leadership has difficulty in relinquishing this successful model, despite the growing understanding by many among them of the increasing need for economic integration in the general community.
  3. The challenge to the supremacy of Torah study: The Hafetz Haim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan Hacohen of Radin (1838-1933), one of the greatest Torah scholars of the pre-Shoah generation, declared “that the tenth should be holy!”, meaning that he foresaw that in the long run, only one of every ten boys who learn Torah would be suited to dedicating his entire life solely to Torah study. In any case, it is likely that after negotiations, the Haredi world will come to terms with a compromise under which a full exemption from civilian/military service would be limited to only a tenth of the 8,000 young men in each age cohort. And yet, the Haredim have great difficulty in relinquishing a way of life whose significance in terms of values is the absolute supremacy of Torah study for all those who wish it, and settling instead for allocating scholarships whose numbers will be determined by budgetary constraints.

The Difficulty in Finding a Comprehensive Solution

While the political discourse has a tendency to bundle all the above problems together in a single package – and indeed, they do sometimes have reciprocal relationships – an orderly and cold analysis shows that solving one of the problems is liable to sabotage the solving of one of the others, and vice versa. In other words, a solution requires not only finding the right formula for dealing with each of these challenges but also for setting priorities: what is it more important to solve, and what can be put off or even left alone?

Following are examples of how various solutions to the Haredi challenge “interfere” with one another and complicate the presentation of a comprehensive solution.

–          The demand for drafting the Haredim and for equal burden-sharing will unite the Haredi community in active resistance – perhaps even including breaking the law – that will undermine efforts to bring about their voluntary integration into the workforce. The military draft is without doubt the most difficult issue for the Haredi community, and insistence on full, or even partial, draft equality (which would mean repealing the recognition that those who learn Torah are of equal – or even greater – importance to those in uniform) appears to be something the Haredim would refuse to accept. Of course, Israeli society could impose harsh penalties on the Haredi sector in the event that it refuses to accept new draft rules (forcibly drafting Haredim directly would be much more complicated that imposing punishments on those who refuse to be drafted). However, this would not necessarily achieve any objective other than a certain reduction in the economic cost of supporting the Haredi community. On the other hand, there are indications that the Haredi leadership is prepared to move cautiously and gradually towards occupational integration, a move that an immediate focus on the draft question would likely reverse. In other words, if the top priority is the productive integration of the Haredim into the workforce, it is possible that revoking the duty to enlist would make it much easier to achieve this goal than would requiring enlistment.

–          The demand for equal burden-sharing, assuming it would result in the drafting of a significantly greater number of Haredim, would per force cause friction between the Haredi draftees and the army, and would accentuate the Haredim’s demand for accommodation of their sectoral characteristics, as it would the challenge of Haredi coercion. It is important to recall that, even today, there are increasing numbers of cases in which a clash is evident between religious/halachic demands and the accepted standards in the military that results from the rise in the proportion of religious-Zionist soldiers in the army (the most prominent of the recent cases concerned refusing orders during evacuation of settlement outposts, women’s singing, the phrasing of the soldiers’ swearing in, and the involvement of military chaplains in preparing soldiers for battle). Adding tens of thousands of Haredim to the army would necessarily lead to a significant intensification of these clashes.

–          The aim of reducing coercion by Haredim is not necessarily consistent with the other two demands. As we have mentioned, integrating Haredim into military service would add new points of conflict and coercion. But more than that: a Haredi community that enjoys not only numerical growth but also economic independence would probably only increase its demands and be less willing to compromise with the rest of the society on which it is currently dependent for its livelihood. Does Israel really want to bring the Haredim to economic independence? Wouldn’t economic independence strengthen the Haredim’s bargaining power and their appetite for imposing new arrangements in various areas? In the current situation of almost total economic dependence on state funds, the power of the Haredim is indeed felt, but it is limited. A unilateral decision by the Israeli government to cut off funding for the Haredi day-schools and yeshivot would weaken them greatly, even to the point of collapse. The Haredi leaders are well aware of this, and they are therefore careful not to make far-reaching demands. Economic independence would also give them much greater room to maneuver without being influenced by the constant need for government funds.

In other words, the Haredi challenge is complex and dealing with it requires setting preferences and priorities that will dictate recommended approaches. In any case, we cannot assume that dealing with the problem requires flexibility (or “submission”) only from the Haredim, and it is important to understand that the non-Haredi community, in overcoming one of the challenges, will likely pay a price that it had not necessarily anticipated in relation to the others.

The Basic Question: What kind of Haredim does Israel want?

All of the challenges presented above are in effect an expression of the essential question that Israeli society has to confront – what kind of Haredi community is it interested in (or, regrettably, is it willing to tolerate)? To put it bluntly, there are four possible choices that different policies are likely to lead us to:

  1. Confronting and Coercing the Haredim: There are many Haredi leaders who suspect that Israel’s real goal is social and economic integration, ultimately leading to the Haredim’s full assimilation within Israeli society and to the elimination of their sectoral uniqueness, which necessarily has an element of segregation from the wider society’s norms. Advantages: This approach would take the Haredi challenge off the agenda, and bring about the absorption of a new and high-level population into the Israeli “mainstream”. From a Zionist liberal perspective, this approach would also reinforce the national sovereignty of the state, which has been eroded by years of political compromises in this matter, and others. Disadvantages: Such a course of action is difficult to implement and is liable to lead to segregation and to the radicalization and intensification of the Haredi challenge. The increase in the number of voters for the Haredi “United Torah Judaism” party in the recent elections was the result, among other things, of the general mobilization of the Haredi camp against the “terrible decree” of drafting the yeshiva students. A government policy of confrontation will draw the Haredim into a “survival” discourse (to which they are accustomed) and will undermine other existing efforts to bring about consensual integration that are already taking place. An approach that also includes an attempt at cultural coercion is likely to give rise to moral concerns among non-Haredi Israelis.
  2. A policy of isolating the Haredi community: Such a policy would not seek to change the character, or to reduce the numbers, of the Haredi community, but it would strive to eliminate the sector’s “harmful” influence on other sectors of society (a policy that, borrowing a term used in foreign policy, might be called “containment”). It is possible to repeal the economic arrangements that make the Haredim a burden on the Israeli economy (whether by denying them benefits or by improving their employment situation), and to prevent the Haredim from influencing prevailing Israeli social-cultural arrangements (i.e., preventing religious coercion). Eliminating this “influence” does not necessarily require equality of burden-sharing – in one way, it could serve as an alternative to equality: instead of requiring the Haredim to share in the “responsibilities,” it would deny them the “rights”. Advantages: Such a course is not dependent on imposing society’s wishes on a Haredi sector that is not interested in taking on the rules of conduct desired by general society. When such an arrangement was proposed in the past, on a smaller scale – in relation to a possible separation of Bet Shemesh from the Haredi Ramat Bet Shemesh B neighborhood – the Haredim themselves opposed it. This means that such an approach could raise awareness among the Haredi community of the need for a partnership relationship with the rest of the population. Disadvantages: Full sectoral isolation could lead to radicalization. Being cut off from government resources would necessarily lead to intolerable poverty and to distress that Israeli society would find difficult to watch with indifference. The state would also lose the reciprocal benefits of adding a human resource to the productive civilian workforce.
  3. Haredi Economic integration only: Such a policy would strive for full integration of the Haredi community into general society as a sector whose overall economic contribution is positive – both by increasing its productivity and by reducing its economic dependence and need for support. At the same time, this option would strive to avoid the challenges arising from the Haredim’s social-cultural integration into wider society, and would leave the Haredi community as an isolated sectoral island. If this option is desirable, it would also require favoring the development of a separate “Haredi economy” rather than efforts to integrate Haredim in work-places with non-Haredi Israelis. Advantages: This would overcome the main challenge – the economic burden that the Haredi community places on Israel – without the need for bitter struggles. The Haredim would accept relatively easily the need for this kind of change, which would not impose the requirement of army service and would not endanger their cultural differences. It also may lead (as we have seen in the past and in Haredi communities abroad) to greater cultural and social integration, and even, in the long term, to a greater feeling of belonging by Haredim to the national Israeli community. Disadvantages: This approach would not bring equality in security burden-sharing. The sector would remain separate and would continue to build its numerical and political power – with the addition of economic independence – that would likely lead to a further round of struggles over its rights and influence down the road.
  4. Balanced integration by mutual consent: Such an approach would seek to integrate the Haredim into all areas of Israeli society, while recognizing their differences and their distinctive needs, while the Haredim would recognize the limits to the arena of issues that are subject to their influence. Such a policy would seek to integrate the Haredim into army life (or national service) alongside non-Haredi Israelis. It would aim to place Haredim in work-places that are not explicitly Haredi. It would attempt to set rules of conduct acceptable to both sides that would facilitate a lifestyle that is sufficiently blended to meet the need for integration, but without harming the Haredi community’s desire for a degree of separation. Advantages: Initially this model would be one of partial rights and partial duties but the goal would be to move progressively to a model of full economic integration and full equality of rights and responsibilities. It would bring about a feeling of “unity” that could also radiate for the good on the public atmosphere and discourse, and engender the cross pollination that often occurs when different cultures come together. We also expect that gradual integration following a negotiated agreement will result in Haredi goodwill and acceptance of the new reality. Disadvantages: An increase in possible areas of high friction. Difficulty in overcoming mutual suspicion and in designing a process of integration that is sufficiently gradual to ease Haredi fears, yet rapid enough to convince the rest of society that it is not an attempt to fudge the issue or to avoid change. It would also leave the long-term Haredi challenge unresolved (when their numbers grow and their economic power grows, they are likely once again to make demands that are not acceptable to other parts of society – but even more so).

Basic questions for the Haredim too

Alongside the lively debate taking place in the non-Haredi community, Haredi leaders also need to define long- and short-term priorities for themselves – while understanding that the status quo has led to a crisis in their relations with other segments of society. The Haredi leadership must take many and various considerations into account as it weighs this issue, although it seems that it is possible to boil these down to two main questions:

  1. How high a price is the Haredi community prepared to pay in social-cultural terms in order to achieve economic integration within Israeli society? In other words, what are the red lines that the Haredi community will refuse to cross, even if it is forced to pay a heavy economic price in the loss of benefits and support? Could it survive over the long term without these benefits and what means would they have at their disposal to withstand such economic pressure (the Haredi leadership should take into account that heavy economic pressure could lead the Haredi community to fall apart from within, even to the point at which its leadership loses its authority)?
  2. Is the Haredi community interested solely in economic integration, or is it also interested in being involved in, and having influence on, Israeli society? Attempts to influence wider society, including the political involvement by Haredim in managing Israeli policy in various fields, are undoubtedly catalysts of friction with the general population, and it is likely that the Haredim could more easily segregate themselves without other sectors of society feeling a constant need to erode their power (in order to prevent coercion). In this context too we should raise the possibility that the wishes of the Haredi leadership may not necessarily be n complete accord with what the Haredi population wants. While the leadership sees segregation as the main means of protecting the Haredi way of life, there are many Haredim who are interested in a relationship with other sectors of Jewish-Israeli society that goes beyond just the economic.

Basic Numerical Data

Population size: According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the Haredi population numbers 500,000. Of the Jewish population: 8% define themselves as Haredim; 12% as religious; 13% as traditional-religious; 25% as traditional; and 42% as secular. See: Selected Data from the Social Survey, 2009. Religiosity in Israel – Characteristics of Different Groups. Other assessments claim that the population of Haredim of all types numbers some 850,000 people. By 2020, its relative size is projected to almost double and the Haredim are projected to be 11% of the population aged 25-65.

Draft: 16% of Haredi youth are drafted (compared to 75% among the general Israeli population). Similarly, 1,282 Haredim (17%) were drafted into the IDF out of a total of 7,500 boys in the relevant age group in 2011. The percentage of those receiving a service deferment is steadily rising: the number of yeshiva students who entered the “Torah study is my occupation” framework, by which they are entitled to a deferment of service, increased from 41,000 in 2005 to 62,500 in 2011.

Poverty: Poverty rates among the Haredi population are extremely high. This can be attributed to three factors: low employment rates; low salaries resulting from lack of training; and the high number of children that does not allow them to rise above the poverty line.

Employment: According to the CBS, 61% of Haredi women work (88% of secular women) compared to only 52% of Haredi men (93% of secular men). The National Economic Council states that the employment rate among Haredi women is 57% and 40.4% among Haredi men. A broad effort (led by JDC and the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Employment) that is coordinated with the Haredi leadership has enabled 3,500 Haredim to integrate into the work-force, and the KEMACH Fund, which helps Haredim to enter vocational training programs and higher education has awarded 13,000 tuition grants in recent years. Most of the graduates of vocational training programs find works in their fields. With help from the Haredi frameworks – including Haredi campuses integrated within universities – the committee on budget and planning of the Israeli Council for Higher Education plans to increase significantly the number of Haredi students, from 3,750 at the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year to 12,000 in 2015 (See: The Calcalist).

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Worst-case scenarios arising from drafting the Haredim, see: Simulation Abstracts: The Ramifications of the Tal Law’s Abolition, The Open University, 3.9.2012

Recommendations for drafting Haredim into the army or into civic/national service, see Main Courses of Action for Arranging the Drafting of Yeshiva Students into the IDF or Civic/National Service, Shmuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research, 4.3.2012

Recommendations for integrating the “core curriculum”, see: Maayan Shahaf and Yehuda Morgenstern, Report on EMC (English, Mathematics, Computers) Studies, Shmuel Neaman Institute, 6.5.2012.

Proposals for integrating the Haredi population in education, the economy and the army, see: Reuven Gal, Integration of the Haredim: Model, Scenarios and Mapping, Shmuel Neaman Institute, March 2012.