We who try to keep our politics separate from religion often treat those who do not do so as adversaries of the public good. Israel’s secular Jewish population is no exception; you do not need to search far to find Jews in Israel who have a long list of complaints about the main Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) — and advocate for excluding them from the government the second the opportunity presents itself.
Meanwhile, MK Moshe Gafni, head of the Degel HaTorah wing of UTJ, recently said his party’s MKs “all support” a bill that would sanction the budget for yeshivas if haredim do not meet new military enlistment targets. While Gafni’s statement is not final and other religious factions may disagree, it is the latest indication that the adversarial approach we secular Israelis take toward the haredim is flawed.
Let me go back to 1948 to explain why. Usually, when we complain (rightly to be sure) about the lack of public transportation on Shabbat, laws protecting kashrut, or the rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce, we blame David Ben-Gurion for making the “Status Quo” deal with the then-small haredi parties. However, we forget that when Ben-Gurion made that deal, the world was going through a wave of secularization that secularists like Ben-Gurion thought was total and irreversible. Liberalism and communism swept Europe and Asia and relegated religion to either the private realm or the dustbin of history. Ataturk proclaimed a secular revolution in Turkey and ended the centuries-old Islamic Ottoman Empire. Even the Arabs were raising the standard of a new secular nationalism. In Ben-Gurion’s mind, it was only a matter of time until the inhabitants of the whole world, let alone Israel, realized that God has no place in politics.
How wrong he was. Decades later and religious communities have grown, not disintegrated. As President Reuvin Rivlin noted in his famous 2015 address at the Herzliya Conference, we are now experiencing a “new Israeli order” in which secular Jews make up 38% of Israel’s population (down from 52%) while haredim account for about 25% (up from 9%). It is about time for us to realize that the haredim are here to stay – as an integral part of Israeli society – whether we like it or not.
And there is much to like about it. Although the haredi population remains Israel’s poorest community, young haredim fed up with poverty are increasingly joining the workforce. In 2003, 36% of haredi men and 51% of haredi women were employed whereas today those figures stand at 50% and 73%, respectively. A more recent trend has seen rapid entrance of haredim into Israel’s high-tech sector, with haredi entrepreneurs storming the market, haredi shared workspaces and accelerators taking off, and the 2016 launching of Israel’s first haredi investment fund, 12 Angels Venture Capital, which intends to invest $5 million in haredi startups. Secular entrepreneurs have in turn invested significantly in private haredi initiatives, hoping to expand the market and attract talented haredim to their companies. For example, WeWork provides free assistance to haredi high-tech accelerator KamaTech to help set up the latter’s new shared workspace, Ampersand. Moreover, the government says higher numbers of young haredim draft to the IDF each year.
It is simply a stereotype that haredim only study Torah all day and contribute nothing to society. Yet many Israelis still make this complaint and say they will vote for Yair Lapid to stick it to the haredim.
Sticking it to them is the wrong way (and voting Lapid probably is too). Haredim always have been an inseparable part of Israeli society, at minimum because Israel is a democracy and the haredim are a significant part of the population. Bending haredim to secular demands not only exacerbates a secular-haredi divide, but also shows we are willing to break democratic norms to undermine those we consider our political adversaries. Doing so would compromise our democratic character.
We secular Jews may, and rightly do, disagree with haredi political positions, but we must make the haredim our partners, not our enemies, in ensuring the new Israeli order is an improvement on the old. Gafni’s latest statement shows there is a partner, and non-haredi parties should continue negotiating and working with haredi ones.