Pin a Medal on Goldknopf

In some of the office parks scattered between Herzliya Pituah and Rothschild Boulevard, here and there in high-tech companies and in general – one increasingly sees Haredim.

Nice, the average Israeli says to himself. Look, the ultra-Orthodox are integrating into the society. But in reality, the opposite is true. By most measures, Haredi integration has fallen off in recent years. The latest statements by United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf, today’s number one ultra-Orthodox politico, have put an end to the masquerade and revealed to Israelis the stark truth about Haredi attitudes toward military service and core studies, about Haredi contempt for the rest of the Israeli population, and about a few other areas where change had appeared to be underway. The bad news is that there has indeed been a change – for the worse.

The good news is that Goldknopf is rubbing our noses in it. Maybe now we’ll finally wake up.

Ultra-Orthodox school. Photo by Eitan Elhadez-Barak/TPS

The acute challenge of integrating the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society is critical for Israel’s continued prosperity. All the data from the last few years show that if Haredi non-integration continues, in the labor market and in other spheres of Israeli life, along with that community’s current rate of demographic growth, Israel will become a third-world country. The nation’s future is commonly illustrated through the prism of Jerusalem. In recent decades, the share of ultra-Orthodox among the city’s Jewish residents has risen, and now stands at 35% – two-and-a-half times the Haredi share of Israel’s Jewish population overall. Accordingly, Jerusalem has become a poorer city, with higher rates of negative migration from it among the secular and the more affluent. Unless something changes, this is what Israel will look like four decades down the road.

These trends are not new; the writing has been on the wall for quite some time. Faced with the facts, the Israeli government, the country’s academic institutions, and numerous organizations have been, for the past two decades, trying to integrate the ultra-Orthodox in all areas of Israeli life. A superficial look at reality might give the impression of resounding success. Even those living in secular strongholds occasionally encounter Haredim; Haredim study in academic institutions; they work (at least the women) in high-tech and other fields; some even serve in the army. And hey, there is a significant Haredi presence in the media and on Twitter. All is well, concerned Israelis tell themselves; in another year or two or ten, the ultra-Orthodox will fully integrate – they’ll be like us.

But the picture emerging from the deep data is dark. Apart from the success in integrating Haredi women into the work force, all other efforts have failed. Haredi IDF recruitment has become a joke, and despite the terrible inequality reflected in their refusal to serve, Israelis seem to have grown indifferent to this failure. Haredi integration in academia is foundering as well. The proportion of ultra-Orthodox men who complete a bachelor’s degree is negligible. Most do not pursue higher education, and of those who do try to earn academic degrees, the majority (75%) drop out along the way. The integration of Haredi men in the work force has also failed. Fewer than half of Haredi men work, and those who do earn only 57% of what their non-Haredi counterparts make. The impact on the Haredi community and the State of Israel is rough. Some 60% of Haredi children live beneath the poverty line. The Haredi tax payment rate compared with that of non-Haredim is very low (35%), yet the average ultra-Orthodox family receives 54% more National Insurance benefits than the average non-Haredi family.

This failure did not spring out of nowhere. It is the result of a continuous Haredi struggle against any change in the community’s way of life, and most of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ political efforts are geared toward ensuring that the Haredi lifestyle is subsidized by the Israeli taxpayer. However, in the face of the criticism leveled at the ultra-Orthodox for the choices they have made, Haredi leaders have found it expedient to maintain a policy of ambiguity. At the negotiation table they fiercely protect their own interests, but in the public arena they use softer language, and point to the Haredim who have integrated. In this way, even though the reality has actually worsened, the opposite impression was created. And so it seemed to those who wanted to believe this illusion that actual change was just down the road.

Goldknopf, with his arrogant behavior and inflammatory statements, may be doing a disservice to his ultra-Orthodox followers, but he is providing a critical service to the rest of Israelis. While kicking sand in almost every interview, he reveals the fundamental attitudes that have driven and still drive ultra-Orthodox politics and most of Haredi society. In so doing, he shows other Israelis that what has been will continue to be – and even worsen. It is true that some Haredim have integrated into the fabric of Israeli society. There are some who are changing their views. But the vast majority belong to the conservative ultra-Orthodox sector, which is also growing demographically at a much faster clip. This group lives almost exclusively in Haredi enclaves, hidden from the view of most Israelis, and it is neither changing nor integrating. Goldknopf does Israel an important service by showing us that if he and his ilk succeed in perpetuating the current trends, Israel will careen, at 120 miles per hour, into a brick wall.

First published by The Jerusalem Post