Israel is best known for its chronic problems with Arab neighbors. And now there are demands from middle- and upper middle income young Israelis about the cost of living. Yet what is arguably the country''s most serious problem is somewhat under the surface as seen by overseas observers, i.e., the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
Palestinians and other Arabs have proved to be manageable, albeit dangerous. They occasionally produce individual tragedies, but are more a danger to themselves than to Israel. One can hope that the government will find some way to improve the situation of middle- and upper middle income young Israelis, who are, after all, a large group of voters who hold the future of the country in their hands
The Haredim threaten the viability of the economy, overall standards of living, and the continued willingness of the productive and creative population to put up with them.
The threat appears in the number of Haredim, their growth, political influence, demands on the economy, and their lack of contribution.
Historically, Jewish communities supported bright boys willing to devote years to the study and teaching of religious texts. Balance was maintained by the limited numbers involved, and the willingness of many Haredim to combine a religious life with employment that provided a living.
Israel is unique in Jewish history insofar as the Haredi expect the state to support large families whose males aspire to study all their lives. Many of those males--perhaps the overwhelming majority--lack the brilliance that traditionally justified community support. Some 10 percent of the Jewish population, perhaps a half-million people, are closing themselves up in the Middle Ages, and demanding the rest of us pay while accepting their absence from the workforce, military service, or anything else that is productive or helpful.
Of course, they see it differently. Studying texts that haven''t changed in centuries, in their view, contributes to the defense and prosperity of God''s people more than anything that comes from hi-tech or the IDF.
Haredim themselves, or at least some of them, recognize the problems. Housing is expensive for them, even if they are willing to live more crowded in small apartments, and in neighborhoods without the aesthetics demanded by middle-income and better-off secular Israelis. There are also Haredim who do not want to threaten the Holy Nation of Israel by demanding more than the economy can provide.
The neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol in Jerusalem illustrates a more general phenomenon. It had been a mixed neighborhood, with secular and Orthodox Jews, but located on the border of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. It proved to be an attractive place for young ultra-Orthodox couples, usually those from North America or Europe, with the personal or family capacity to buy apartments more attractive than those found in other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. It now appears that the men of those families are living an Israeli Haredi life style of full time study, or part-time work with incomes that will not support the purchase of similar accommodations for their numerous offspring.
There are signs of. change. Some Haredim are doing military service, studying in technical colleges, and working in industry. There are schools and workplaces that provide them with time out to pray, and the separation of sexes. While such cases may only be the beginnings of change, some speak optimistically about great numbers and a true upheaval among the Haredim. It is widely conceded that the movement--however large--does not penetrate all congregations. There remain those steadfast in their opposition to anything but the study of sacred texts and unlimited procreation.
Israel limits itself by a widespread concern to be a state of the Jewish people, no matter how costly. The weight of Haredi political parties is important, but is not the whole story . Anyone who doubts the role of Jewish culture should consider the country''s efforts in behalf of Ethiopian Jews, despite doubts about their background, and a continued willingness to accommodate those claiming a family connection with Jews.
A question that is somewhere on the agenda is, What to do about the Haredim who resist making any economic contribution, but demand state support?
Among the options are:
· Enacting a schedule with respect to child support payments, stipends paid to adult students, and the financial support of religious academies that will entail the gradual, but serious reduction of state support.
· Enforcing the rules that have lain dormant (due to Haredi opposition) about requiring the teaching of a modern core (science, mathematics, language) in any primary or secondary school that receives state support.
The task will not be easy, and may prove to be impossible. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis tend to resist innovation. They are, when all is said and done, "orthodox" in the extreme. Resistance is reinforced by competition between Haredi congregations and their rabbis as to which is more loyal to established tradition.
A more serious problem than posed by Palestinians, Arabs, and other non-Jewish hostility?
Yes, insofar as those threats have been met with more or less united resolve. The Haredi threat is perceived more dimly, and through a filter keyed to a concern for Jews. To be sure, the response to non-Jewish threats has not been total, and there are many who would throw the Haredim on the dust heap of history.
Israel''s political parties may all be reluctant to attack Haredi interests so forcefully as to limit their chances of obtaining Haredi support for a future coalition. However, the parties vary in their warmth toward Haredim interests. Likud has been the warmest in recent years. The demise of of the outspokenly secular Shinuei has left the tiny and virtually moribund Meretz as the only party that might be called "anti-Haredi." Kadima''s leader Tsipi Livdi has made some comments that suggest a tilt against the Haredim, but that has not been tested, and it is not shared by others close to the top of her party.
The seriousness of the problem can be defined by the incidence of Haredim who are making their own way out of the Middle Ages via education that is useful in the modern economy. If the proportion is small, Israel is in trouble. If the proportion is sizable and growing, Israeli officials may find a way to deal with it.
The worst scenario appears in the culture of Israeli that hinders any forceful decision about the Haredim that is certain to be implemented. Israel has proven to be a tough state with respect to its non-Jewish adversaries, but not with respect to its Jewish problems.