Israel's golden opportunity to integrate haredim - opinion

What exactly is the opportunity? The genuine and positive integration of the haredi community into the wider Israeli society.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk in the funeral procession of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak on Sunday (photo credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk in the funeral procession of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak on Sunday
(photo credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

It was hard not to be moved this week watching the images coming out of Bnei Brak. Hundreds of thousands – some estimates said 750,000 – swarmed into the narrow alleys and streets of the haredi city to attend a funeral for someone most of them had never met.

But that made no difference. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was the end of an era, and for many of his followers, the last true leader whose authority was unquestioned. Rav Chaim, as he was known, was the final word on all matters social and halachic, and his standing among the faithful was obvious by the amazing turnout on Sunday.

The last time Israel saw such a crowd for a funeral was when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. A high school student at the time, I was among the hundreds of thousands who streamed past the Knesset where his flag-draped army coffin lay in state.

Since then, there has been nothing like it and even Rabin’s funeral was only after a severe and unprecedented national tragedy and trauma. It made sense that so many people would come out in mourning on Sunday.

Kanievsky’s death was not inherently tragic or traumatic – he was 94, and died at home of old age. Nevertheless, for the haredi community it was a shock because it meant the end of an era.

 Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral ceremony of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at the cemetery in the city of Bnei Brak, on March 20, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90) Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral ceremony of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at the cemetery in the city of Bnei Brak, on March 20, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

But with every ending there is a beginning, and the question is whether the country will know how to leverage the opportunity. 

The situation does not look great. It is kind of like when the current government coalition was formed in June. Whether you were in favor or against, it was impossible to ignore the historic opportunity created by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. There was an Israeli coalition after 73 years of statehood bringing together Jews and Arabs for the first time in what was promised to be a real partnership.

How will this partnership play out? It is still too early to judge. Five years from now it is possible that Israelis will look back at this coalition as a historic turning point that changed Israel forever, or as one of the nation’s greatest failures, never to be repeated.

“For haredim, we are also now facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” one friend who hails from a prominent haredi family told me this week. “A lot needs to happen though for the opportunity not to be missed.”

What exactly is the opportunity? The genuine and positive integration of the haredi community into the wider Israeli society. This includes workforce participation, education, national or IDF service, and more.

There are a number of reasons why my friend and others like him believe there is this opportunity.

The first is the generational transition taking place simultaneously in the Knesset as well as among the rabbinic leadership. In politics, the longtime leader of United Torah Judaism, Yaakov Litzman, plans to quit the Knesset in the coming weeks, and has said he will not run again. Aryeh Deri, veteran Shas leader, had to quit the Knesset under a criminal plea deal that saw him convicted for a second time but who nevertheless can return to the Knesset in a future election. Time will tell if he does.

Regarding Kanievsky, his presumed successor is the 98-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein. Who comes next? People have difficulty pointing to a single person, which means authority will become dispersed, and some followers will get lost in the divisions that will be created.

The second reason to think change is possible is because of what happened in April, when 45 celebrants – almost exclusively haredi – were trampled to death at Mount Meron, the worst civilian disaster in the nation’s history and the current focus of a state commission of inquiry.

What the tragedy prompted was an understanding among the haredim that ignoring the police and state authorities can lead to a disaster. And Meron taught the police that it cannot simply dictate the way things need to be, nor manage an event, without working with civic and rabbinic leadership.

And that is what was evident on Sunday, when 3,000 policemen deployed throughout Bnei Brak and the rest of the center of the country to ensure that the unprecedented funeral went off without a hitch. It showed people that the police are not the enemy, not an adversary, and that when both sides trust one another good things can happen.

Corona has also contributed to this. The high infection rate, the high number of deaths, and the way haredim were looked at when they ignored pandemic restrictions was rooted in a general mistrust of the government, but could now help lead to an improvement in ties.

Will the government and haredi society take advantage of this opportunity? There is still plenty of mistrust, particularly from the Bennett-Lapid government that the ultra-Orthodox street considers to be anti-religious and anti-haredi. And any attempt to impose an IDF draft bill without working with the haredim will only intensify the divide, and lead to more tension between the sides.

What can be done? There is no one answer. While the percentage of Haredi women working outside the home jumped from 51% to 78% between 2003 and 2020, male workforce participation is still low, at about 50%. More can be done to teach math, computer science and English. The Economy Ministry can offer more programs that incentivize training and recruitment, and employers can be more accepting and tolerant of haredi employees.

In the public sector, there are only about 1,000 haredim, and 64% of them are women. Why aren’t there more, men and women? Why isn’t there a greater effort and investment made by government ministries to hire haredim?

Then there is housing. On Wednesday, the government announced plans to build 10 towns in the Negev, including a haredi one – to be called Kassif - near Arad.

The motivation to get more Israeli Jews to move to the Negev is important, but a haredi city down there is not smart, and simply continues the narrow-minded way Israeli governments have looked at haredim for the last seven decades: send them someplace with cheap housing without considering employment opportunities. It is almost as if the government wants the haredim who move there to sit in kollel without working.

This sends the wrong message. Bennett, Lapid and all of Israel have a unique opportunity right now. Let’s not miss it.

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It was supposed to be the picture of the week: Israel’s prime minister sitting to the left of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Sharm el-Sheikh.

This was history in the making, an unprecedented regional summit bringing together the leaders of three of the most important countries in the Middle East, a rare public flex of muscle in the face of Iran.

Here at The Jerusalem Post, we were planning on using the summit photo as the main picture on Wednesday’s P. 1. It was rare, important and historic – all the ingredients for the front page. But then a terrorist went on a murder rampage in Beersheba, butchering four people with a knife.

Instead of talking about the Sharm summit, the media’s attention turned to the victims, the Bedouin who killed them, his connection to ISIS, and the continued lack of rule of law throughout the Negev.

Bennett flew back to Israel later that day with barely anyone noticing, and his summit did not even make the top of the fold in Wednesday’s paper.

But it was also a lesson in what really matters for Israelis. Since becoming prime minister, Bennett has spent a lot of his time and energy on foreign affairs. He spoke on Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and numerous times recently with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as well.

What happened in Beersheba is a reminder that none of what happened in Sharm e-Sheikh really matters for Israelis, if they can’t even drive to a gas station in the “Capital of the Negev” to fill up their car without having to worry about getting stabbed to death. Bennett’s mediation efforts between Kyiv and Moscow don’t really matter to women who are too afraid to walk down the streets of the Negev city without being harassed.

The lack of rule of law in the Negev has been a problem for decades and is not Bennett’s fault, but he is now the country’s prime minister. The terrorist attack that took place there on Tuesday is a reminder of a problem that cannot be ignored.