The Haredim: What Was Is Not What Will Be

Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) centrality to the Israeli experience is a surprising development: at the time the state was founded, Israel’s Haredi community amounted to a handful, mainly from the Old Yishuv and a small number of immigrants, refugees from the European Holocaust.

The Haredim did not constitute a significant factor in national life, and the political Zionist leadership assumed that the community’s power would wane, that its best years were behind it. The move from the Eastern European shtetl to the golden sands of Palestine had made the Haredi way of life seem irrelevant. The community’s exilic passivity would, it was thought, be replaced by pioneering activism; Jewish religious identity would be upgraded into a national identity; simple religious faith would be sobered by scientific achievement and enlightenment; and the rabbinical leadership would give way to a civic, political leadership like “all other nations.”

Yet that is not how reality unfolded: the Haredi community successfully rebounded from the horrors of the Holocaust and from the loss of Europe’s storied yeshiva world, and within a few decades became a major player in Israeli life. The phoenix had risen from the ashes. The Haredim now amount to an eighth of Israel’s population, and the interaction between them and the country’s other citizens has become a central issue on the Israeli national agenda. Its ramifications can be seen in all major arenas – politics, society, the economy, education, the media, culture. Haredi centrality has far-reaching implications for Israel’s national resilience.

A large share of Israel`s current public and professional discourse reflects the mistaken assumption that the past – the way in which Haredi society grew over the last several decades – predicts the future. That is not the case. In this article, I will discuss the strategic process that led the Haredi sector to its present flourishing state, and call attention to a number of developments on the ground that, in my view, have the potential to frustrate the continuation of current Haredi conduct. What was is not what will be.

The four pillars of current Haredi strategy are as follows:

  • Self-segregation: The Haredim have managed to establish autonomy within the state; they develop and cultivate their unique way of life while deliberately and intentionally separating themselves from the Israeli public sphere. Haredi autonomy has spatial, educational, cultural, and political aspects. A large proportion of Haredim, especially the young, avoid interacting with those outside their communities, and do not engage in friendships with non-Haredim. Thus, by means of an ongoing isolationist effort, the Haredim have successfully segregated themselves from the broader Israeli public and built what they call “walls of holiness” meant to protect them from alien influences they regard as destructive.
  • Leadership: Haredi autonomy was instituted and led by influential rabbis whose authority the Haredi public accepted voluntarily and unquestioningly. These were the gedolim (“great ones”), revered primarily for their intellectual-spiritual immersion in Torah and, in some cases, their asceticism. These rabbis were not elected, nor did they require votes of confidence. The charismatic leadership hierarchy was a major source of the Haredi community’s characteristic discipline, and it enabled the broad mobilization of the public for various purposes.
  • Meaning: The Haredi strategy aimed for the creation of a “society of learners,” in which the sole normative behavior of the Haredi male is to pursue Torah study as his primary, lifelong occupation. The ideal is that of the talmid chacham, the Torah scholar who, being exempt from all other activities, needs no real-life skills and does not work to support his family. The Haredi wife is expected to fill the vacuum and supply the household’s needs. Thus, the entire community is focused on a great mission that all regard as the purpose of existence. This is a powerful unifying ethos, one that mobilizes people for action and demands each individual’s dedication to a “larger than life” purpose.
  • Family: The Haredim strive to produce the largest families they can, without regard for other considerations such as financial difficulties, or lack of adequate housing. Today, the average Haredi family has seven children, more than double the general-Israeli average. As a result, half of all Haredim are children ages 16 and younger – meaning that the number of Haredim doubles every 16 years.

Natural increase, a centralized leadership, a clear identity model, and inner meaning have successfully consolidated the Haredim as an indisputable political and social force – and the Haredim utilize their power to secure, from sources outside their community, resources that facilitate the community’s continued development on its own terms.

Haredi efficacy in the political arena may be attributed to a constellation of circumstances: First, they are a disciplined public that generally votes as a bloc, which bolsters their relative influence. Second, Israeli society is split between two large political camps – commonly referred to as “right” and “left” – meaning that the Haredi public often casts the deciding vote, functioning as “kingmaker” (mamlich melachim ve’lo hamelucha). Third, the Haredim bring their political power to bear on a relatively narrow range of issues; they are primarily concerned with obtaining the resources necessary to meet the community’s material needs; protecting their unique way of life from direct or indirect outside intervention; and promoting arrangements in the religion-and-state sphere (tailored to the Haredi outlook on religious obligation).

But can this last? Is the current situation one of stable equilibrium? Conspicuous efficacy in the pursuit of a given course of action tends to change the conditions in which one operates and undermine one’s original strategy until it collapses. Just as the Religious Zionist community’s successful integration into the general Israeli society has resulted in its present dissolution as an organized group, the Haredi sector will also find, in the end, that its success precludes the continued pursuit of its present strategy.

Here are a few relevant developments, each of which poses a major challenge to the sustainability of current Haredi strategy over the coming decades.

Quantity makes quality: The combined focus on “meaning,” which elevates Torah study above productivity, and on “family,” which dictates large numbers of children whatever the circumstances, creates a tremendous need for economic resources. Demand is ballooning, but how will it be met? The ideal way of life promoted by current Haredi strategy was practicable when the community numbered a few hundred thousand whose needs could be met, albeit barely, by the savings of earlier generations, donations from philanthropists, and by substantial transfer payments from the state. But, at the end of the day, the pockets of existing sources only go so deep. The previous generation of Haredim has already distributed most of its assets on behalf of its children and grandchildren, and we are now reaching the generation of great-grandchildren for whom little remains. Donations cannot double every few years in perpetuity. Nor will the Israeli taxpayer be able to afford the massive transfer-payment allocations needed to support an eighth of the population adequately.

The problem becomes even more acute when we look in the other direction – that of the Haredi community’s willingness to bear its share of the public economic burden. Here as well we find imbalance: the average Haredi household’s expenditure on compulsory payments – income tax, National Insurance, health insurance – is currently 43 percent of the average non-Haredi household. The current state of affairs cannot be maintained over the long term when a huge community consumes more than its share of public funds while contributing less than half of its share to the state coffers. Massive community growth cannot be reconciled with preservation of the “meaning” element that precludes earning a livelihood.

This is also true regarding the spatial issue: The Haredi community’s tremendous rate of increase requires practical housing solutions – it is estimated that some 200,000 new apartments will be required for the next generation of Haredim. In order to maintain the sector’s insularity, new Haredi cities will have to be built, or massive development undertaken in existing Haredi cities in Israel’s periphery. Yet Haredi cities have a very hard time sustaining themselves. They have insufficient municipal revenues because their residents are impoverished, and because they have no major businesses or industrial zones. In order to maintain a minimal quality of life, the Haredim will have to settle in non-Haredi cities, where they will be able to utilize services that the municipality can provide thanks to the taxes paid by others. Whatever one’s moral assessment of such a choice, it should be noted, for our present purposes, that that choice undermines the strategic effort to ensure Haredi autonomy.

Supreme Court President Aharon Barak used the phrase “quantity makes quality” with regard to Haredi military conscription. Indeed, the Israeli public’s overall willingness to bear the inequitable consequences of maintaining the unique Haredi identity diminishes as the Haredi sector grows in size. One cannot compare the military exemption of a few hundred men, as was the case when the state was founded, or even the exemption of a few thousand men, as in the 1970s, with the non-conscription of tens of thousands – between a fifth and a quarter of the annual recruitment cohort – in the coming years. The rope of public tolerance can only be stretched so far before it snaps.

The COVID-19 crisis illustrates these problems yet more forcefully. Were the Haredim a relatively small group, the noncompliance (of some Haredim) with the state coronavirus directives might, perhaps, have been bearable, because the resulting damage would have been limited. But quantity makes quality here as well. By proceeding unimpeded with their Torah studies at hundreds of institutions across the country, the community’s young adults have let the COVID genie out of the bottle in a way that indirectly harms the rest of the population. The costs of the Haredi way of life are thus externalized to the Israeli general public. As the Haredi community grows, so does the economic burden on Israeli society as a whole. This situation cannot be sustained indefinitely. It can end in one of two ways: either the Haredim will change their strategy, or Israeli citizens will go head-to-head, with potentially calamitous results.

Torah study: Not everyone is suited to Gemara study – day after day, all day, for years on end. A life of Torah scholarship requires unique intellectual abilities and exceptional focus. This is a standard most people cannot be expected to meet. Accordingly, yeshiva tracking for all Haredi men has problematic consequences, both for individuals and for the collective. Reliable reports from within the community indicate that only a quarter of Haredi men actually behave as expected. Most experience guilt feelings due to the disappointing gap between the model they are required to emulate, and life as they actually experience it. As the number of ostensible Torah scholars swells, the entire enterprise risks delegitimization. A behavioral standard that is both demanding in the extreme, and unrealistic for a community that constitutes one-eighth of the country’s population, cannot hold in the long term.

Leadership: Until recently, the Haredi public had an authoritative leadership, that allowed the concentration of Haredi power in external struggles, on the one hand, and internal control of community members on the other. However, since the passing of Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, the last of the “gedolim” (venerated rabbinical leaders), no one has appeared to take their place. Despite Rav Kanievsky’s prominence in the public consciousness, for all practical purposes the Haredi community now has multiple sources of authority and a decentralized leadership. In contrast to other aspects of the Haredi strategy that are still operational, here change is already underway, and its consequences are clearly visible: the Haredim are acting like a shepherdless flock – or, more precisely, like multiple flocks, each with its own shepherd.

The centralized-leadership vacuum is having significant impacts on the ground, one of which is a surge in power and visibility for ideologically extreme groups that were once kept in check by a charismatic central leadership. During the coronavirus pandemic, for example, young mainstream Haredi men were carried away by the radicalism of the “Jerusalem Faction” and the Hassidim of Mea She’arim, and became embroiled in physical combat with the police and security forces. In the days of the gedolim the power and influence exerted by these zealots was limited; today, there is no one to rein them in or to denounce their actions with sufficient force.

Another outcome of the centralized-leadership vacuum is the slide of some mainstream Haredim into factions with a more modern orientation, ones that wish to integrate into the general Israeli society while retaining their basic Haredi identity. In the past, the charismatic leadership of the Haredi mainstream served as a barrier to such processes; that barrier has now been removed, and the process is gaining momentum. In a nutshell: the loss of the centralized leadership that shaped the Haredi mainstream will thin the ranks of that mainstream. Some will join extremist and isolationist groups, while others will join factions headed for integration into Israeli society.

Moreover, in the absence of centralized leadership, the power of the “Haredi street” is growing. This development heralds a welcome democratization of Haredi public opinion, which may produce a more open society with a greater diversity of views and norms. However, this empowerment of the masses may also accelerate responsibility-shirking processes.

Access to information: Today’s technological revolution has the power to penetrate the Haredi “walls of holiness.” The tree of knowledge of good and evil, in the form of the Internet and its end user devices, has been planted in the innocent and sheltered Haredi paradise. Like Adam and Eve, the Haredim are forbidden from tasting the fruit of the tree; but again, like Adam and Eve, they are unable to resist the temptation – often literally becoming “Apple” consumers. Over half of all Haredim own digital devices – computers or smartphones – that give them full access, at any given time, to all available information. Many use these devices reluctantly, resigned to their necessity for some occupations. Many also guard their children from Internet exposure, though the COVID-19 pandemic has partly breached this barrier, due to the necessity of working from home.

Desperate attempts to block access to information will not succeed. The Haredi public must now acknowledge the existence of information inside their homes. In this sense, the challenge that boundless information access poses to the Haredi public is really no different from the challenge faced by any particular culture. Censorship has become impossible; one has to face developments as they arise.

Conclusion – a delicate moment: The Haredi community’s once successful strategy is being challenged on a number of fronts. The community’s needs have grown along with its size, and the Haredim are forced to make ever-greater use of political power. In order to harness that power for its needs, the Haredim have become broadly active in government. But with power and authority come responsibility and the need to cooperate with others. In the long run, cooperation cannot exist side-by-side with self-segregation – they are inherently incompatible.

Other formidable challenges to Haredi self-segregation include the technological revolution and the information age. There is no possible way that the “society of learners,” with its emphasis on Torah study as the exclusive model for normative Haredi men, can be sustained when the population in question numbers in the hundreds of thousands. The Haredi economy can no longer be borne on the shoulders of the general Israeli public. That public, which is losing patience amid waning solidarity and low consensus levels, will not reconcile itself to the thankless task of providing for others. These are not mere predictions, but rather changes that are already underway.