The balanced policy:

The key to ultra-Orthodox integration

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a Bible as he protests against a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a Bible as he protests against a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
MOST PEOPLE tend to think of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) society as being closed off and isolationist. Yet over the last few years, this community which numbers more than a million people and represents some 12% of the population in Israel, has been influenced in a variety of ways by the broader Israeli society in which it is situated.
If we look at the lifestyle of haredi Jews in other countries – in the United States, Britain, and Belgium – we see that it is common there for men to work from a relatively young age and not just to study, and that most haredi schools teach core secular subjects as part of their curriculum. These haredi Jews travel on public transport without gender segregation, and some of them go on to pursue higher education at secular institutions. However, the haredi community in Israel has been far more extreme in its separatism, paradoxically, because of the state’s Jewish character. The fact that the haredi parties often play a pivotal role in the formation of government coalitions, has enabled them to consistently garner special state budgets and other forms of support, as well as receive an exemption from military service so that their men can spend years studying in Yeshivas.
This isolationism is reflected in the haredi community’s way of life. For example, the ultra-Orthodox community is geographically separated from the secular population and maintains its own media outlets, an independent education system, and a very different leisure culture from that of Israeli society at large.
However, IDI’s latest Statistical Report on the ultra-Orthodox in Israel reveals some new and interesting trends: Over the last decade, there has been a rise in the average age of first marriages; the number of haredi students in higher education has soared, increasing tenfold; and the percentage of ultra-Orthodox girls taking high school matriculation exams has risen by around 40%, and now stands at 51%. There has even been a transformation when it comes to the most controversial issue, military service.
The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel: Select facts and figures (ISRAEL DEMOCRACY INSTITUTE)The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel: Select facts and figures (ISRAEL DEMOCRACY INSTITUTE)
Today, around one-third of ultra-Orthodox males serve in the IDF, a sharp rise in comparison to the numbers just over a decade ago.
So what has changed? Just as “no man is an island,” the haredi community cannot live in total segregation from its surroundings. While the community has worked hard to build buffers against the outside world, it has also been forced to respond to the volatile economic environment in Israel and elsewhere – a rise in housing prices and the cost of living; technological changes, such as the proliferation of the Internet and smartphones, and changes in the labor market that increasingly require professionalization and academic training.
However, this new flexibility demonstrated by the haredi community does not signify a surrender of identity, but rather a quest for ways to preserve ultra-Orthodoxy in the 21st century – to preserve ultra-Orthodox identity, with a modern twist.
Meanwhile, government policy has also changed. In recent years, special programs to integrate the haredi community have been incorporated into the IDF, academia, and professional employment training.
These programs, combined with the economic and technological constraints described above, have played a particularly important role in the transformation we are witnessing in ultra-Orthodox lifestyles.
Evidence of the far-reaching effects of government policy can be seen in the less encouraging figures published recently, which show that after employment rates of ultra-orthodox men grew consistently for a decade, reaching up to 52% in 2016, we saw a decline of 2% in 2017.
This decline is a result of the current government’s decision to restore financial incentives for unemployed members of the ultra-Orthodox community, such as stipends for full-time yeshiva students, an increase in child benefit payments, and financial support for child daycare even for families in which the father is unemployed.
There is no doubt then, that government policy has a critical impact on these social changes. Too harsh a policy toward the ultra-Orthodox community may only serve to strengthen those conservative forces that seek to prevent the integration of its members into Israeli society. But the opposite approach, i.e. policies that are all carrot and no stick, has proved over the years to be ineffective.
Accordingly, a sound policy for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox society must adopt a balanced approach. One that will allow optimal integration into Israeli society for those who seek it, without imposing demands on the ultra-Orthodox community that they cannot possibly meet.
Ultra-Orthodox society has drawn closer and closer to mainstream Israeli society in recent years, and the state’s policy makers must now act wisely to ensure that these processes continue apace, for the good of both the ultra-Orthodox population and Israeli society as a whole.
Dr. Gilad Malach is the Director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute
Dr. Lee Cahaner is a Researcher in the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute and head of interdisciplinary studies at Oranim Academic College of Education