Analysis: The golden age of haredi buying power

Although the haredim may have failed - at least at press time - in forcing El Al to cease and desist from future desecration of Shabbat, they taught us all a lesson in how to marshal consumer buying power. In a country with socialist roots, the haredim have emerged as savvy manipulators of market forces who would make Adam Smith proud. Unlike other distinct populations in Israel's fractured society, such as Arabs and Russians, the ultra-Orthodox have aggressively demanded - and often gotten - what they wanted. El Al is not the only firm to reckon with haredi buying power. Pelephone, Partner, Cellcom and MIRS, the four cellular phone companies, all acquiesced to the rabbis' calls to clean up their act: No access to Internet or erotic, X-rated phone calls. Bezek plans to do the same under Shas Communications Minister Ariel Atias. In the past six months alone, Egged, Israel's largest bus company with 70% of the market, has added 11 new intercity bus lines for a total of 25 that segregate men and women. In addition, very secular kibbutzim, such as Ma'abarot, offer kosher meat that adheres to the most stringent halachic criteria, while food chains that serve the haredi market are the only businesses closed in dozens of non-Shabbat-observent shopping malls across the country. The Sano company bent over backwards to prove to haredi rabbis that none of its paper manufacturing plants work on Shabbat, and Israel Electric Company recently announced that it would soon produce "kosher" electricity - electricity that is produce without the desecration of Shabbat. Cellular telephone companies, Bezek, Egged, secular kibbutzim, food chains, paper producers and IEC all have one thing in common: profits. Nobody is doing the haredim an altruistic favor. Both sides get what they want. No hard feelings. The market is radically different from politics in that sense. In politics, a tiny haredi party can coerce a narrow government coalition into unjustified concessions by threatening to topple the government. Both sides lose. Hard feelings are rampant. Secular Israelis resent being extorted. Haredim end up losing all they gained when a government changes and revenge is taken. However, haredim have also learned the language of the market, a language that big business understands. Demands are no longer couched in religious terms such "keep the holy Shabbat," or "protect us from unclean lasciviousness." Rather, haredim ask businesses to "meet consumer needs" and to "provide adequate services." Haredim have learned that they can translate God's religious demands into market demands. At the same time, their religious faith and insular lives protect them from market influences. In sharp contrast to modern day critics of the free market - such as anti-globalism and anti-corporate activists, culture jammers and environmentalists - haredim have discovered how to use market forces to further their interests while also blocking market influences considered inimical to a life of devotion to God. Although some haredim have become victims of consumerism, the strictures of faith have limited its spread. The haredi community's ability to unite against the influences of globalization and consumer culture and to work together to further religious goals, such as keeping Shabbat and family values, arouses jealousy among some. Gadi Margolit, the secular CEO of Trio, an advertisement firm that caters to the Arab, Russian and haredi markets, said that he envies the haredi community's cohesion. "Israeli society's transition from socialism to capitalism has resulted in more and more alienation and individualism," said Margolit. "There is no feeling of togetherness, of care. "But the haredim are different. They look out for each other, they stick together. I envy them."